Lack Of Affordable Homes In Palm Beach County At Crisis Level
More than 500 government officials, lenders and builders packed a ballroom at the Palm Beach County Convention Center Wednesday to come up with ideas on how to address a lack of affordable housing they say is hurting employee recruitment efforts and driving younger people to less expensive locations.
Turns out, they fretted, paradise is less idyllic if you’ve got to live with your parents or drive from Martin County because affording a place to live here is hieroglyphics hard.
There were more diagnoses than prescriptions, as speaker after speaker described the affordable housing problem as a “crisis” the county must address if it wants to retain its economic and cultural vitality.
“This is the most serious public policy issue we are facing within South Florida along with rising sea levels,” said Edward Murray, associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.
“We are absolutely in a crisis,” said Craig Vanderlaan, executive director of Crisis Housing Solutions, a Davie-based housing support services firm. “That’s why we’re all here.”
Vanderlaan’s presentation, one of several from a range of finance, development and public policy officials, included a nugget that drew snickers and smiles in equal measure.
In reaching for a series of solutions to the affordable housing problem, Vanderlaan urged county leaders to think outside of the box by thinking about using a box — a shipping container, to be precise.
Re-purposed shipping containers have been used in building student housing in the Netherlands, a mall in London and veterans housing in Los Angeles, he said.
Might that mean containers along Okeechobee Boulevard or Military Trail?
“Look at ‘em like Lego blocks,” Vanderlaan said. “You can have fun with this. Millennials absolutely love this stuff.”
County Administrator Verdenia Baker smiled when asked about the prospect of container housing, but she didn’t laugh off the idea.
“I’m interested,” she said. “If they’re dressed properly, then, yes, why not?”
Baker, whose staff organized the summit at her direction, said ideas generated during the discussion — a more streamlined approval process for development, for example, and possibly more public-private partnerships — will be reviewed and posted on the county’s website in advance of future discussions about affordable housing.
But she said the county’s approach won’t simply be all talk.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, Wednesday’s keynote speaker, said he county was smart to be thinking seriously about how to make housing more affordable. He said the county should come up with concrete goals that are measurable with specific people held to account if those goals aren’t met.
Baker said she likes the idea of firm goals and accountability.
She was less enthusiastic about an idea put forward by builders, a drop in impact fees.
Baker noted the fees are used to mitigate the broader impacts of development like the need for additional services.
“That impact is real,” she said. “You’re either going to pay for it in the development process or in higher taxes.”
There was limited discussion Wednesday of the county’s signature affordable housing program, referred to as workforce housing because its goal is to help middle-wage people in the workforce, like teachers and firemen, afford a place to live.
That program requires residential builders to include housing units that are offered at below-market prices to make them affordable to middle-wage workers. Some cities in the county, such as Boynton Beach, also have established workforce housing programs.
Residential builders don’t like the programs, viewing them as a costly expense that leaves the impression the affordable housing problem is their responsibility.
GL Homes Vice President Kevin Ratterree said the range of attendees is a step in the right direction on that front.
“The most significant element of this is it opened the door to this being a broader discussion,” he said. “It’s not a developer problem. It’s not a not-for-profit problem. It’s a problem for everybody.”
Figures Murray ticked off at the beginning Wednesday’s gathering underscored the scope of that problem.
The median gross rent of $1,900 in Palm Beach County is unaffordable for 80 percent of renters in the county, he said. The median single family home price of $327,000 is out of reach for 75 percent of county residents.
From 2010-2015, the percentage of homeowners in the county dropped by 1.6 percent. During that same time, the percentage of renters climbed by almost 25 percent.
Cisneros, HUD secretary during the Bill Clinton administration, said other regions like Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area, are also grappling with how to make an economically vibrant, attractive place to live an affordable place to live.
He said the county should continue to make plans to accommodate the growth that will continue coming its way.
“You will grow,” he said. “You cannot plan for stasis. You can not plan to be static. You either go forward or go backward.”
Baker said she will not let the issue go and will continue reaching out for help.
“Those of you who know me, you know I’m never, never going away on this housing issue,” she said. “You might as well come willingly.”
Author: Victor DeFrisco
June 6th 2017
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