More than 400 people attended the Collier County Workforce Housing Forum hosted by Greater Naples Leadership on Wednesday. The event included eight employers in the Southwest Florida area struggling to find housing for their employees along with testimonies from six local residents who are challenged daily by a lack of affordable housing.
Dan Lavender, CEO of Moorings Park retirement community, is one of many business leaders in the area who are plagued with employees being forced to make long daily commutes. “I’ve had housekeepers come up to me, they got a letter, their rents are going up $700 to $800 a month. They can’t afford it, they move 45, 50 miles away sometimes,” he said. “Now they’re commuting back and forth and spending two hours coming each way. And I just don’t think that’s sustainable. We have to find a way as a community to have the people who provide the services and work to be close by.”
NCH Healthcare System CEO Paul Hiltz said the company spent about $40 million more in salaries last year than 2021 in an effort to offset the increasing price of living. NCH continues to struggle with hundreds of open positions, with 40% of its staff living outside of Collier County. After realizing throwing money at the issue of workforce housing is not the answer, NCH sought to find more creative ways to find a solution, one of which was creating a housing coordinator position.
“The position that we created assists employees facing evictions, increases in rent that are not sustainable and finding housing that’s within their budget,” Hiltz said. “That position took time to establish relationships with community members and local apartment complexes that would work with us, as well as pinpoint other housing assistance programs that can help and we continue that search.”
Darlyn Estes, director of Management Services for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, spoke about how lack of workforce housing is affecting recruitment along with creating longer days for current members. “A lot of our members who are near retirement age are realizing that they can make a lot of profit if they sell their homes because of the housing market, and they’re taking advantage of that,” she said. “So I’m losing members who are selling their homes for a huge profit and going to another community where they can buy a more affordable home.”
In an effort to combat this issue, the sheriff’s office implemented hiring bonuses and began allowing officers with assigned cars to drive them home to Lee and Hendry counties. Due to a staffing shortage of 50 positions, members are finding themselves working 12 hours shifts.
“For those living outside the county, they have a very long commute, an hour to an hour and a half,” Estes said. “So add that to the beginning and the end of each shift, and that’s a very long day. They work three consecutive 12-hour shifts plus their commute times before they get one day off.”
Collier County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Valerie Wenrich provided insight on how unaffordable housing is impacting the school system. The county has the second highest starting salary in the state at $50,000, and has been giving 25% increases over the past four years for all employees.
“We see employees who refuse our increases because they need the benefit clip, which means that they will lose their subsidized childcare or their subsidized housing or their subsidized food,” Wenrich said. Wenrich feels pressure to make sure the lack of staffing in the district doesn’t begin to affect students in the county. “Growing class sizes due to lack of instructional staff, combining courses to ensure there are certified teachers, is something that we’ve had to use as a solution,” she said.
Mario Delaluz and his wife Abigail Moreno were one of the six Southwest Florida resident testimonials during the forum. They are living with their newborn daughter in a makeshift room inside the garage of their in-laws. “Everything that I do with the baby, I will have to take her out of this room in this garage into my house to do everything,” Moreno said. “So I would have to come back and forth to help with my baby’s needs and that’s the difficult situation. It also feels a little unsafe to be outside of a home during the nights as well.”
Delaluz hopes that from all the shared experiences brought to the audience, the biggest message to take away is how the workforce housing crisis is shaping the future of the region.
“It’s beautiful that we live in Naples, and there are million-dollar homes. But at the end of the day, what can [the service industry] afford? What can their grandchildren afford in the future? That’s what’s really impactful right now,” he said. “And for them to hear the stories and keep hearing ‘It’s my children, it’s my grandchildren, that’s legacies to come.’ So it doesn’t just affect them, it affects the future of the generation.”