Our Affordable Housing Crisis Will Affect Everyone

Joe Trachtenberg

Today over 45,000 Collier County workers can no longer afford to live here. And as rental costs continue to rise, they will soon be priced out of the Lee County/Fort Myers markets. As if things weren’t bad enough, Hurricane Ian painfully reduced housing availability.

If you doubt this, you just need to drive north on Interstate 75 after 4pm. The folks sitting in traffic with you are our teachers, nurses, deputies, waiters, builders and store clerks. And everyone else who can no longer afford to live near their job. Frustrating? You bet! In fact, many of them are looking for new jobs near home.

Can we stop the exodus of our workers from Collier County, and actually bring them back? Of course! But first we have to want to do this and make this known to our county and city leaders.

Let’s talk a little about economics. Building market priced housing is a very good business, with increasing numbers of people from all over the country wanting to live here. Owning a housing development with rental units is even better – so long as the demand keeps growing.

Each time a lease expires, the landlord gets to reprice his apartment. Florida law prohibits any interference in this free economic activity so if you can’t afford that extra $1000 a month your landlord wants, start packing. Someone is waiting to move into your home, and you need to scramble to find a new place to live.

There are developers who successfully build affordable housing in Florida. It doesn’t quite take a village to make the economics work – it takes elected leaders who care about the problem. These men and women control the zoning rules, and when it comes to housing profitability these rules truly matter.

Consider this – most Collier County multi-unit housing goes on land zoned for four units per acre, BUT our county commissioners can change this to 16 units an acre at will. Or more if they want. In an effort to bring some affordable housing, they’ve offered this deal to market rate developers – “if you’ll include 30% of your units as affordable, we’ll give you up to 16 units per acre density.”

On the surface this is a great deal. But it gets a little muddier. HUD has created an annual statistic called AMI (Area Median Income). There are so many wealthy people in Collier County, our AMI for 2022 is about $98,000, nearly the highest in Florida.T

he 30% apartments reserved for affordable use are almost always designated for individuals and families earning 80, 100 and 120% AMI. So, while it’s terrific that folks at this income level are getting apartments they can afford, the majority of our workers earn substantially less than 80% AMI. Fact is if you make $30-35,000 a year, like more than half our workers earn, a $2000/month rental apartment is way out of reach.

Recently a developer proposed building 208 “luxury” apartments off Vanderbilt Beach Road, with 30% of the units reserved for folks with AMI’s of 80% and higher. While it makes sense for questions about traffic and the environment to be raised, I was horrified to hear some express concern about crime rates, because of the affordable units.

Undoubtedly this results from a lack of understanding of what affordable housing is.

We all have pictures in our minds of urban ghettos, poorly operated by city housing authorities. This is NOT what we are discussing here! Our society is dependent upon workers who will care for us when we’re sick, build and keep our homes running, offer groceries and services, teach our children, etc. These folks need housing proximate to their jobs. The idea they invite crime or will negatively impact property values is just wrong.

Other Florida counties are actually doing something about this problem. On Election Day voters in Palm Beach County approved a referendum authorizing $200 MM in bonds for affordable housing.

A new 1300 unit development was recently announced in Orange County, with the support of the Disney Corporation. Similarly Universal Studios donated land on which 1000 affordable units will be built, along with an on-site preschool, retail space and a transportation hub. These organizations recognize without employees to serve their businesses and communities, you may as well turn off the lights.

Experts estimate Collier County is currently short 10,000 affordable units, with this number growing annually by over 1000 units. We need to do more to solve this problem, starting now.

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