With finding an affordable place to live becoming a bigger challenge in South Florida, Palm Beach county commissioners agreed to place on the November ballot a referendum for a $200 million bond to subsidize more affordable and workforce housing.
The bond would address the housing supply for people who earn lower to middle income wages in restaurants, tourism, education, health care, law enforcement and agriculture. “We specify that it would assist in the creation of units for the workforce,” says Jonathan Brown, director of housing and economic development for Palm Beach County. “We are working with the County Commission to determine what will be built if the bond is approved by the voters.”
A bond "is simply a loan, but in the form of a security,” according to Ballotpedia.org, a nonprofit and nonpartisan online political encyclopedia. A “unit of government receives a loan from a private lender that is secured by the government's assets, including its ongoing ability to generate income through taxation.” If approved, the money will kickstart housing developments for working folk. But bond issues almost always mean tax increases as the government “owes principal and interest on that loan to the private lender.”
Here’s how it would work: Developers would compete for dollars to help lower the cost of construction in the county. “Our existing programs will allow up to $100,000 per unit created,” Brown says. “The projects that score the best are recommended for the commissioners’ approval. On our existing programs, we look at site control, qualifications and experience, readiness to proceed and financial viability.”
County leadership has said they’d like to see a mixture of condominiums, apartment building-type rental units, single family homes and townhomes. There could also be mixed use developments that would include stores and businesses. Where these would go hasn’t yet been figured out, but might be determined by the kind of projects presented by the developers. County officials would have the last say.
To qualify, a household’s income cannot exceed 80 percent of the area’s median income. A one-person household could not earn more than $51,500 annually and a four-person household could not earn more than $73,600. To qualify for workforce housing, a one-person household cannot earn more than $90,160 annually and a four-person household cannot earn more than $128,800, according to Brown.
Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth says he’s concerned about ongoing inflation and the struggles people face affording food, insurance, gasoline and other necessities. He also says he understands that many residents may not want an increase in their local taxes to pay for the bond. But he also knows that something must be done to increase affordable housing.
'Employers can’t hire people if they can’t afford to live here'
“We need to address the need for workforce housing because employers can’t hire people if those individuals can’t afford to live here,” he says. “I support the general obligation bond. We are working to attract companies that can provide good positions but there need to be places for their employees to live. (People) need to realize that if there are few places where people can live, we are going to see more people using the roads to come from Broward County, Martin County, or the few areas in Palm Beach County where housing is less expensive.”
Weinroth is a member of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, which is looking for ways to attract companies that can pay full time salaries of around $70,000, considered the sweet spot for the area. Many jobs pay less, some pay more. But one thing that companies look for is affordable housing, Weinroth adds. One new apartment development known as the Reserve at Atlantic has been approved for about 476 units, of which 25 percent will be considered workforce housing. There will be a club house, daycare center and recreational amenities.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is one of those on the board who opposes bonding for housing. “I didn’t think now was the time to ask voters to dig into their pockets to increase their taxes,” she says. “I also met with advocates of the bond program and asked them how they would prioritize project funding. The response given to me basically precluded the poorest region of my district from eligibility. While those parameters won’t be officially set until the referendum passes, it was eye opening to me to see where their priorities would lie.”
She adds: “So to ask the poorest constituents to increase their taxes to support a housing bond referendum that wasn’t going to prioritize their area was a no-go for me. We have a multitude of federal funding sources right now that need to be spent and much of that is for housing. We also need to look at our own processes that burden the development of affordable housing: A cumbersome land use regulation system and an understaffed building department.
McKinlay agrees there’s a housing crisis, but blames lawmakers in part for constantly “raiding” the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to pay for things other than housing. “We need our state partners to work with us in all regions of Florida to help reign in obscene rent increases so our workers can afford to live here, our families can afford to raise (their children) here, and our seniors can afford to retire here. And these same Floridians can realize the American dream of home ownership at some point in their lives.”
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers city government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.