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How Great is the Need for Workforce Housing in Southwest Florida?



Richard Borge

Forbes once ranked Naples among the top 25 places to retire rich. But when it comes to housing, median-income earners might not score the area so favorably.

Forty-three percent of Collier County households—roughly 62,000—are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than the standard 30 percent of income on residency.

“If your household makes $10,000 a year, you shouldn’t be spending more than $3,000,” says Kim Grant, community and human services division director of Collier County. But 22 percent of households are spending upward of 50 percent of their income.

“Because of the housing prices in our community, almost half of the people are spending more than they ought to based on conventional thinking,” Grant says.

Home prices have increased about 49.3 percent in the past 3 to 5 years, according to data presented by Grant at an October housing forum. As a result, households making 60 to 120 percent of Collier County’s median income—between $39,900 and $79,800, based on a median income estimate of $66,500 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—are struggling.

Firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and computer administrators often fall into that category, the data shows.

Kristi Bartlett, vice president of Opportunity Naples, says lack of affordable housing can make it difficult for companies to maintain and recruit a workforce.

Bartlett says in 2014, some 8,000 workers commuted from Collier County to jobs in other areas. The number of workers coming into Collier doubled that. She figured the county would be importing more people than exporting, she says, “but I didn’t think it would be quite so high.”

How does incoming traffic impact the area?

“Just go out on I-75 and you know your answer,” Grant says, noting that interstate traffic is its heaviest in late afternoon. “A lot of people are going between 5 and 6.”

Bartlett says some of the workers are driving in from Lee County, where the median income level is $57,600. The median list price for houses in Fort Myers in October was $239,900, according to Movoto.com, compared with $485,000 in Naples.

One area in Lee County that can rival Collier-bound traffic is the Sanibel Island causeway during season.

Community Housing and Resources Inc. (CHR) on Sanibel aims to keep on-island workers from making that dreaded over-the-bridge drive.

The nonprofit partnered with the City of Sanibel in 1983 to provide affordable workforce housing. Seventy-four rentals and 14 housing units are offered within the program, spread across 11 locations. The city provides about $300,000 of the $1 million budget for housing. Remaining income is covered by grants, donations and significantly lowered rent prices.

“People should be able to live and participate in the community in which they work,” says Kelly Collini, CHR executive director.

“When you have … different economic levels, it makes for a healthier and more robust community.”

Other areas in Lee County offer workforce-housing support. The Realtor Association of Greater Fort Myers and the Beach Inc. has established a nonprofit housing foundation that provides financial assistance to those who qualify.

That’s not to say Collier County isn’t making moves. The board of county commissioners has taken action—including amending planned urban developer contracts—to implement more housing, in response to data presented in March by the Collier Community and Human Services Division and Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC).

The AHAC is considering possible incentives to employ at the government level, says Grant, and will present to the board in December. Making a substantial difference will take smart planning and time.

“Does this mean we’re going to have to build 62,000 additional units to sell at a lower cost? No. But you need to work to integrate as much housing that is affordable to people working here so they aren’t cost-burdened,” Grant says. GB

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