Living In Paradise – If You Can Afford It

Collier County's lack of affordable housing may be hurting business, but there are no easy solutions.

If you’re a millionaire, Naples is a great place to live. A billionaire? Even better. But for those who make up the middle rungs of the workforce, finding affordable housing in Collier County can be a beast.

Last July, David Bumpous, senior director of operations for Arthrex, made a case for more affordable housing in front of Collier County commissioners. Part threat, part plea, Bumpous’ statement told commissioners that the medical device company is having a hard time recruiting employees. These employees say they’d love to move to Naples, but they just can’t swing the cost of housing. Bumpous warned commissioners that Arthrex, which adds nearly $2 billion to the local economy each year, may have to look for greener pastures—or at least pastures where its employees can afford a place to live.

He’s not alone. A number of local businesses are calling for more housing options that regular folks—firefighters, deputies, nurses, school teachers—can afford.

 

Darlyn Estes

HOME SWEET ELSEWHERE

Darlyn Estes, human resources director for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, sits on a committee with other Collier County stakeholders that includes representatives from Publix, Hilton, Collier Schools, Jewish Family Services, PBS Construction and others. The committee’s purpose is to call for more in-county affordable housing for its workers and employees. Part of the problem, Estes said, is inventory. There aren’t a lot of apartments available on the market, and the affordable ones go immediately. “Even the unaffordable ones are being snapped up.”

The starting salary for law enforcement and corrections officers in Collier County is $44,943. Zillow puts the median home value in Collier County at $342,120. At the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rate of 3.625 percent and with 20 percent down, that means a monthly mortgage cost of $1,248. Even with a pre-tax paycheck of $3,743 each month, that mortgage is a hefty 33 percent of a new deputy’s salary.

So, it’s no surprise that many of Collier County’s deputies choose to live outside Collier County. Currently, 229 members of the office’s 1,265 members live outside the county. The reason is pure economics. In Lee County, the median home value is $240,330; in Charlotte County, it’s $217,905. Nearby Hendry County offers the best deal with median home values at $131,783.

To offset the cost of commuting, deputies are now allowed to take home their duty vehicles, even if they live outside of Collier County. In the past, deputies who lived in the surrounding counties would have to leave their police cars at the county line. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office strives to keep salary and benefits packages competitive, but budgetary constraints impose salary limits. Instead, the office has been able to offer a $3,000 sign-on bonus for certified members and a $1,500 sign-on bonus for civilian members. New hires can use the bonus money for anything they want, though the Sheriff’s Office suggests they put the extra cash toward a rental deposit or a down payment.

Andy Solis

Collier County Commissioner Andy Solis has seen firsthand how a lack of affordable housing affects Southwest Florida residents. More commuters on the roads means more traffic at peak hours, he said, and Collier County is losing valuable income. “We have people who work in Collier County and use the county’s infrastructure, but then pay their taxes and spend their income in Lee County.”

His solution? “Build more of the right kind of houses; houses people can afford.”

But not everyone agrees. As tract homes push eastward, paving over formerly undeveloped land, Collier County may be losing one of its biggest assets: nature. Plus, with memories of the Great Recession still fresh in the minds of many Florida residents, some people are worried that thousands of new homes may signal another housing bubble in the works.

 

Donna Fiala

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

District 1 Commissioner Donna Fiala voiced similar concerns in a letter to the Naples Daily News in February, warning, “I foresee problems ahead.” In her letter, Fiala maintained there is plenty of affordable housing already available. “I started driving around to assess the situation. I drove by some very reasonable housing called Wild Pines on Linwood Ave., which is all affordable housing, and the sign posted on the fence said, ‘Now Leasing.’ The
price? $790 per month. … I drove by the Sierra Grande on Rattlesnake Hammock Road near the Physicians Regional Hospital, where there was a huge sign on posts that said, ‘Now Leasing.’ … I have a friend who lives at the new Milano Lakes … The rents are designed for nurses, teachers, X-ray techs, sheriff’s deputies, etc. They are 44 percent rented … I drove through a mobile home park, which is 55 and older, and there were quite a few places for rent … I drove down Rattlesnake Hammock Road and saw many For Rent signs. I drove down Hawaii Boulevard where For Rent signs were displayed. I drove down side streets off Bayshore and found still more rental apartments … It seemed everywhere I drove, I saw For Rent signs.”

Gulfshore Business asked Fiala about her stance, and she said one of her biggest problems with the so-called affordable housing crisis in Collier County is the unfair distribution of affordable homes. “We have 52 percent of all affordable housing here in East Naples,” Fiala says. “The rest of Naples is in dire need of affordable housing because they have been slowly and carefully eliminating theirs. All we’ve been saying is please distribute it among all the districts.”

She may have struck on an important point, one the county stakeholders who are calling for affordable housing may be overlooking. One of the qualities that has come to define Collier County is exclusivity. People who can afford it relocate to the area for its upscale shops, top-notch dining and high-end real estate. For years, tradesmen and office workers have made the commute from Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres and Punta Gorda to businesses that serve the wealthy elite of Naples. Maybe Collier County likes it that way?

The county may be in danger of losing out on more than just spending from its Lee-based workers, however. Some businesses are finding that expanding into surrounding counties is better for their employees, and that’s ultimately better for their bottom lines. In July of this year, Naples-based Conditioned Air plans to open its new 52,719-square-foot operations center in Fort Myers. The company already has an existing, smaller facility in Lee County. Though Conditioned Air will maintain its Naples headquarters, the new building will serve as a hub for the company’s Lee and Charlotte markets. The location will also be the main training facility for Conditioned Air’s entry-level technicians.

Tim Dupre

“We saw it as a huge opportunity to attract labor from Cape Coral, Fort Myers and the Lehigh area,” says Tim Dupre, president and CEO of Conditioned Air. “We wanted a Fort Myers hub where our employees could find affordable housing.” The company also hopes to spare its employees the hike into Collier County each day. Dupre understands what a burden it can be — he lives in Cape Coral. “I face that drive every day; anywhere from 55 minutes to two hours, depending on the gamut of I-75.”

Conditioned Air’s approach may be one more and more Collier businesses adopt. Or perhaps workers and tradesmen will continue to commute in to Collier County from other more affordable counties, as they’ve done for years.