Affordable Housing Solutions The crisis we are experiencing can be solved in time.

by Joe Trachtenberg, Chairman of Collier County’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee

As we continue to see service levels decline, more people understand the primary cause is lack of affordable workforce housing. HR managers have become very used to hearing “thank you for the job Offer; I can’t afford to live here”, as they drive the nurse or teacher candidates back to the airport.

The City of Naples voters recently passed a referendum amending their Charter, just to allow their City Manager to live outside the city. Or do without a City Manager.

Collier County, and Southwest Florida in general, have become one of our country’s most desirable places to live. With Covid-19 came the ability to work remotely and live anywhere; we topped most “best places to live” lists.

A recent study found we have more “remote” workers than anywhere else.

How do we solve this growing problem? It won’t be easy. Each day over 45,000 Collier workers clog the roadways driving from and to their homes in Lee and Hendry counties. Rental prices there are rising as fast as ours, as demand to live here grows. Rent control is illegal in Florida, so as leases renew, more workers are forced to move away to more affordable regions. And of course Hurricane Ian created its own havoc.

The most important solution is we all must get together and understand the problem. Working collaboratively, we can begin to make changes, to at least reverse the alarming trend. Experts say Collier County is currently short 10,000 affordable housing units. This number is growing by 1000 units a year. For how long can we stand by, while out healthcare workers, teachers, waiters, building workers, etc. continue to move elsewhere?

The solutions to this problem do not lie in establishing blame. Instead we need to understand how we got here, and the future steps we need to take.

The number one cause is demand – it has driven land prices to a level developers cannot profitably build affordable housing without help. This can come in many forms – modify zoning rules, allow greater density and building heights, reduce or defer impact fees, provide financing support.

Recently Collier County appointed a new County Manager, Amy Patterson, who both understands affordable housing and cares deeply about it. She has reorganized the Growth Management Community Development Department and moved affordable housing under their control. Our best minds are working daily on finding solutions.

Ultimately our Board of County Commissioners will make the decisions we need to add this housing. They are bombarded daily by constituents with varying opinions. If the loudest and greatest number of voices they hear come from folks opposed to development, it will be difficult for them to make the appropriate decisions. That’s why we need to band together to express our concerns. If we believe we need affordable housing, we must make this known.

There are other things that can be done outside of government. Two years ago many businesses were crying they couldn’t afford to raise the $8.50 minimum wage, and $10 would kill them. Today the de facto minimum wage is $15-17 per hour. I’m thinking that’s not enough.

Businesses need workers to survive, and it’s going to get much more expensive to hire people. There’s always been a premium paid to workers in most big cities; Naples will have to catch up or suffer the consequences.

In some areas building workforce housing is an important opportunity for philanthropy. Foundations and wealthy individuals who previously built the hospitals, museums, parks and theaters are investing in housing for essential workers. I think this makes sense for us.

The crisis we are experiencing can be solved in time. It will require creativity, broader support, higher prices to cover higher wages and patience.

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