County Commissioners Take on Fight for Affordable Housing – coastalbreezenews.com

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Commissioners were confronted with sobering statistics and stories on Collier County’s Housing Crisis. And it wasn’t just the public comments from concerned citizens trying to find housing. NCH, Naples Area Board of Realtors, Collier Public Schools, the Salvation Army, the League of Women Voters and more took turns speaking to the problems the county is, and will be, facing if the housing problem isn’t addressed.

From January 2021 to January 2022, rents have increased 71.4% with the median rents going from $1,750 per month to $3,000 per month. During that same time period, there has been a 61.7% decrease in availability. In January 2021 there were 1,248 units available; as of January 2022 that number is 478. And for units priced at $2,107 or less, just one was available as of January 1, 2022. On the home buying front, the median house price has increased 31.3% from the previous December, with availability decreasing 70%.

Market Demand Summary

Market Demand Summary

Public comments shared a common theme: wages are not keeping up with the increase in rents and once priced out, there is nowhere else to go. One woman was told she needed an income of $100,000 after taxes in order to get a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment for her and her teenage daughter to share. Many referenced being part of the “new face of homelessness” and one gentleman commented “the infrastructure isn’t as big as the county we created. We created a city when we are still treating it like a suburb.”

Local business comments provided even more feedback.

Jennifer Hart, Senior Human Resources Business Manager at NCH, says “we can’t attract people even with incentives” and that current employees are “leaving to go to other places that are more affordable.”

Mary Waller, a member of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and a Director at the Naples Area Board of Realtors said, “local government, schools, fire districts, hospitals, police and sheriff’s offices are all reporting that hiring is becoming increasingly difficult as employees find their paychecks do not cover the cost of rent or a mortgage.”

Janet Hoffman, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Collier County, brought a statistic that said “Axios listed Naples as the top U.S. city (with) the highest rent growth in 2021 at 38%.”

Valerie Wenrich, Assistant Supervisor of Human Resources for Collier County Public Schools, talks of losing 175 non-instructional staff from August to February of this year. She said, “about 20% (of all employees) commute from out of county, some as far as Charlotte county.” She also said, “this is temporary as they are seeking to find employment and housing in those areas in which they live – the cost of commuting is getting too costly.” 

Speakers also made sure to point out that while most talk revolves around providing for essential service jobs like police, fire, healthcare and education that we can’t forget about others, such as construction workers, baristas, gas station employees and more.

Current State of Development

Current State of Development

There are significant restrictions on what the county can do as far as rent control. Statue 125.0103 (2) states that “No law, ordinance, rule, or other measure which would have the effect of imposing controls on rents shall be adopted or maintained in effect except as provided herein and unless it is found and determined, as hereinafter provided, that such controls are necessary and proper to eliminate an existing housing emergency which is so grave as to constitute a serious menace to the general public.”

“Existing housing emergency which is so grave” is meant to apply to disasters such as hurricanes. And even if the county could impose a rent control referendum, it would only be good for one year. But “could” is the operative word. While the board could make a finding that the need for the referendum is grave, it would be challenged in court by the state and County Attorney Klatzkow believes “the county would lose.” Other counties are considering a challenge but it is not expected the state will apply the grave designation towards the statewide housing problem.

Educating the county is another challenge. Commissioner Taylor points out that neighborhoods are fighting to have affordable housing built next to their communities. There is a need to educate the community on the dire need the county is facing. District One Commissioner, Rick LoCastro, relates to a town hall he had just after being elected where he and staff were “yelled at for four hours by a community for daring to consider building affordable senior housing next to their neighborhood.” LoCastro said, “We can’t just put all the affordable housing in Immokalee. We can’t just hide it and camouflage it. It has to be where the workers are.” He continues to relate that “I’ve gotten emails from people who say if you can’t afford to live here then, too bad.” He then explains that if nothing is done, these folks will be left “cooking your own meal and serving it in a restaurant because there are no workers to work there.”

Joe Trachtenberg, chair of AHAC, presented a list of solutions for commissioners to consider and vote on but he points out that there are really just three main issues: “we’re talking about money, we’re talking about density and we’re talking about time. Those are the three areas that will ultimately pave the way to solving the problem.” And while the board was approached in 2017 about the looming housing crisis, he wants not to look back but forward.

Staff recommendations that were unanimously approved during the meeting include:

  • Moving $20 million from the one-cent infrastructure surtax into the Local Housing Trust Fund. Commissioners also asked staff to come back with a dedicated mill rate, not to exceed a tenth, that would be set aside on a recurring basis until future board votes to take it out.
  • Identify eligible parcels for acquisition by the county along with all county owned parcels.
  • Commissioner Saunders put a motion for staff to do a Nexus study on linkage fees on industrial and commercial construction. A few years ago, Saunders was opposed to such a fee but now “developers and property owners have become very greedy.” Commissioners who are not sold on linkage still support the study. “I don’t think anybody should ever be against a study,” said LoCastro.
  • Staff were directed to look into impact fee waivers for affordable housing projects.

Commissioners also considered holding a workshop to explore more options. It was noted that the board would be unable to vote or make decisions in a workshop setting so they changed that to an Affordable Housing Special Session. A Special Session will allow the board to vote and make decisions immediately during the meeting.

Opportunities for Board Guidance

Opportunities for Board Guidance. All opportunities and AHAC recommendations were approved.

Kristi Sonntag, Community and Human Services Director, talked about the programs currently available to help those in need. The county was awarded $20 million through the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA). The ERA can assist residents 80% or below the area median income (AMI) of $85,000. That means a family of two with a max income of $54,000 or a family of four with a max income of $67,450 would qualify. To date, this program has helped 1,900 families for a total of 11 million dollars in mortgage and rental assistance.

However, there are some landlords who are not accepting ERA assistance. Sonntag acknowledges that landlords who raise rent are still looking at the renter’s income. If the income doesn’t match what is required for the rent, the tenant is not accepted regardless of whether they qualify for assistance or not.

There is still $14 million remaining in the ERA program with around $6 million expiring in September 2022 and $9 million expiring September 2025.

For information on taking advantage of these programs call 239-450-2114 or visit www.colliercountyhousing.com-assistance-program/.