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Christopher Westley_03

Workforce housing in Southwest Florida was at crisis levels prior to Hurricane Ian. Now the situation is much, much worse. Consider that the vast majority of housing destroyed by the hurricane was built prior to the upgraded construction codes enacted in the 2000s. Think of the pictures from Fort Myers Beach of a home built in, say, 2012 that survived the storm while the home next door, built in the 1970s, was ruined.

Multiply this phenomenon across the region, and it’s clear why workforce housing problems have suddenly become even more severe. Pre-code housing was more affordable to workforce employees, and Ian removed large swaths of it. Where will these workers live as we enter the winter months? Add to their numbers labor coming to the region to rebuild post-hurricane. Those workers won’t come if they can’t afford to live within reasonable driving distance of the recovery zones.

In June 2022, housing prices were inflating, with median home prices of $795,000 in Collier, $450,000 in Lee and $400,000 in Charlotte. Unless inflation was abated—requiring the Fed to stop financing the growth of government with money created out of thin air—Southwest Florida was on the way to becoming more like Key West, and not in a good way; by requiring much of the workforce to make long daily commutes or live in cramped rental homes. 

What to do?  

There are no easy answers in Southwest Florida, which is structurally unfriendly to workforce housing in any case. Think of all the Midwestern baby boomers who still have the desire and equity cash to move here. Then there’s the dwindling amount of buildable land in Collier County, which also creates upward pressures on housing prices. Why would the homebuilding industry cater to low-income housing units when the return on investment for higher-end housing is so much greater?

This is not a market failure. In fact, natural disasters are when market forces should be the most welcome. Skyrocketing workforce housing prices will signal to builders to allocate resources to serve this sector over time, and the most we can ask of government is not to impede this process.

Whatever your political opinion of the phrase “build back better,” it applies to hurricane recovery. Much of the new building will be able to sustain any Ian-like hurricanes of the future. While there should also be a market for homebuyers with greater risk tolerance to purchase lower-priced but less storm-ready housing, there will be greater demand for new housing that can withstand higher-category storms. Five years from now, when we look back at the rebuilding year of 2023, our region will be in a better place.

But let’s not forget the structural issues that make workforce housing in Southwest Florida difficult in any case. When the Fed inflates the currency and prices rise nationally, they rise here even more—especially in real estate—because much of that new money makes its way to the Gulf Coast. Much of the ongoing concerns about workforce housing ignores this factor, and until it is addressed, workforce housing problems will never go away, with the occasional hurricane only exacerbating them.

In the meantime, let’s focus on what we can control. Let prices allocate resources following any natural disaster. Find housing for temporary workers necessary for the recovery, as well as for those displaced and disconnected in Ian’s aftermath. Empower those regional institutions, mostly private, to best help those least able to help themselves in a post-Ian world.

By doing this, we will not just build back better, but quicker and smarter, too.

Christopher Westley is dean of the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University.

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