Collier County leaders try to address the lack of workforce housing, but the solutions aren't easy.
THE NAPLES ARE A IS A CHOICE PLACE TO LIVE, as evidenced by its exponential growth over the past several decades. But for a growing number of people who work in Collier County, residing there is not an option.
Firefighters, police officers and teachers, for example, are fast being priced out of the county’s supercharged housing market. And now business and civic leaders are struggling to deal with the knotty issue and the way forward remains unclear. They realize that stakes are high: Collier’s quality of life and economic vitality could suffer if the problem isn’t solved.
“It’s a conundrum,” says County Commissioner Tim Nance, who represents much of the eastern part of Collier. “We have citizens here who are some of the most highly educated elite in the country, and some who are working people. There’s no such thing as an average citizen in Collier County, really.”
Gulfshore Business spoke with several sources close to the matter to find out whether workforce housing can be increased in Collier County, how it will be accomplished and what happens if it isn’t.
THE STATISTICS OF WORKFORCE housing are simple: a median single-family home in the county sold for $410,000 in 2014, far beyond the means of most working people. But that’s been true for a long time, and still the problem persists.
“A lot of the same ideas have been bantered about for 20 years,” says Cormac Giblin, a senior project manager with Habitat for Humanity of Collier County. “We talk about the tool box,” he says. “Well, quite frankly the tools in are rusting in the tool box right now.”
The problem’s been building for years, says Chris Westley, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who is director of the school’s Regional Economic Research Institute. Westley should know: He grew up in a house in Naples that his parents bought for about $100,000 in 1980. “I looked it up on Zillow recently and it was almost $800,000, and that neighborhood used to be a workforce neighborhood,” he says. “And now those people have been pushed out well past Interstate 75.”
Right now Lehigh Acres, with single-family houses available for as little as $130,000, is drawing workforce housing, says Jim Green, a longtime real estate broker who’s also a member of the Lee County Housing Authority and chairman of the county Local Planning Agency. But Collier workers likely will be forced to go even farther afield in the future. “What’s affordable? Starters sold for a quarter million dollars in 2005,” Green says. There’s a wide range of what constitutes the income range for workforce housing. Preschool teachers in Collier, for example, make a median wage of $11.84 an hour, paramedics make $17.28, and the median for all occupations is $20.50, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.
Collier’s median annual household income is $56,250, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Meanwhile, housing prices continue to ratchet up, driven by the area’s welcoming climate and a wave of affluent baby boomer retirees. Real estate broker Bill Poteet, president of Poteet Properties in Naples, says that to resolve the problem, the rules have to change. “I’m not trying to find fault with Collier County development codes because for years those codes have created what we now think of as Collier County,” he says. “But they did it at the cost of affordable housing.” The county needs to find ways to incentivize builders to put up more affordable housing, Poteet says—likely by allowing more homes per acre in at least some areas. Failing that, he says, “The other scenario that other people look at is that we will import our labor from Lehigh Acres but the problem is that Lee County is growing, too. They also need that labor pool.”
Still, that may ultimately be the way Collier’s workforce housing issue gets resolved, says Green. “If you watch the I-75 traffic you’ll see right now that Lee County’s somewhat of a bedroom community for Naples construction,” he said.
Housing prices will continue to drive that trend, Green says. “What I expect to happen is that it will move north and east.”From his experience with Lee’s own workforce housing at the top of the real estate boom in 2005, he’s skeptical that non-market incentives will work.
“In the past we’ve struggled with incentives,” Green says. “I can’t say that’s going to come to fruition in any significant amounts.”
AFFORDABLE HOUSING ADVISORY COMMITTEE member Kristi Bartlett, who is vice president of business development for the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, says local businesses are finding that the lack of affordable housing makes it harder to hire the employees they need.
“They do say a lot of their employees have to commute in from Lee, Hendry and Glades County, and even from Dade County,” she says. Entry-level hires are especially challenged, Bartlett says. “There’s a very small rental market, and if you’re fresh out of college and coming to this market you probably won’t be able to afford most of the nicer rentals.”
Those young professionals likely don’t want to live in low-income projects and in any event make too much money to qualify, she says. “People making 80 to 100 percent of the average median income, those are what I think we should be looking at.”
If the problem persists or worsens, the county will pay the toll in reduced prosperity because having too many commuters can cost local businesses money, says Eric Berglund, executive director of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance. “You have a leakage of potential dollars that could be spent in that area because it’s going back to where these folks live.”
But the issue goes beyond money, Westley says. “If you need an ambulance, don’t you really want those people close to you?”
Steve Sanderson, president and CEO of the United Way of Collier County, says the fabric of society begins to fray when people are under economic stress.
“Not taking care of it can lead to some real problems in the future, and you don’t have to look too far to see,” he says. “Kids not living in good-quality housing for example.”
About 40 percent of the county’s households are paying more for rent or a mortgage than they should be for their income, he says, and they’re simply being ground down by the cost of living. “We can’t keep up the escalation of these percentages,” Sanderson says. “It has to give somewhere. People might say, ‘I’m not taking my meds’ because they can’t afford it.”
AFTER A TWO-HOUR PUBLIC HEARING held March 1 by the Collier County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, the county commission gave its staff the ground rules for what needs to be done. But it won’t be easy. Commissioners told staff after the hearing that some things are off the table: especially inclusionary zoning that would require builders to include affordable homes in new projects. “Builders are in business to make money,” Nance says. “They’re not in business to solve social problems.” But other solutions will be considered by a consultant who the county will hire to create a strategy. Committee recommendations include increased spending of state grant money for home purchase assistance, deferred impact fees for lower-priced homes, and floating a bond using taxpayer dollars to raise money for lower-income housing.
The county has some incentives in place offering more units per acre for affordable projects, “but it hasn’t been too successful,” Nance says.
But that strategy still is the one with the best chance of success, he says. “I tend to think that incentivizing people, finding a sweet spot in the middle, is the way to go.” Bob Mulhere, a planner with engineering firm Hole Montes and a member of the Rural Fringe Coalition, says he’s optimistic that incentives could succeed.
The coalition represents stakeholders in a 100,000-acre agricultural and wilderness area east of Collier Boulevard. “In particular, when we talk about workforce housing there’s a pretty strong demand right now for rental housing,” he says. “It’s very difficult to site it in Collier County because the density limits are too low.” But at 12 to 14 units an acre, Mulhere says, builders would be interested. “There’s lots of opportunities to create incentives for the full range of housing.” Lisa Lefkow, executive vice president for Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, says she’s skeptical that the political will exists to improve incentives for builders to put up affordable houses.
But her private, nonprofit group has been able to keep up a steady flow of homes for low-income families by using volunteer labor, sweat equity by the buyers and donations, she says.
Jaime Ross, president and facilitator of the Florida Housing Coalition, says the state government can help to some extent.
She’s also facilitator for the Sadowski Coalition, an alliance of groups that works to encourage state action on homelessness and the lack of low-income housing.
The Florida Senate recently provided in its proposed budget for fiscal year 2016-17 that $185.8 million be allocated to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership and $131.2 million to the State Apartment Incentive Loan program. If the state House of Representatives agrees, she says, that will be a big boost for affordable housing and homeless assistance. Bartlett says it may be that the county’s large employers will have to go to strategies such as providing housing for some employees with modest incomes.
“They may have to think outside the box.” And, she says, the community should remember that as housing prices surged to unsustainable levels before the 2006 crash, “The same thing happened, we waited and waited, and then the market crashed.” When prices fell, she says, the consensus was that “Oh, it’s fixed,” but now the issue has resurfaced. “I think we have a responsive community now,” Bartlett says. “We have perhaps learned our lessons.”