At the beginning of a video shown at Tuesday evening’s forum on affordable housing, Sandra Shank–who chairs the county’s affordable housing advisory committee–herself introduces the video to dispel a few myths. “Many people don’t understand what affordable housing really is,” she says. “When they hear ‘affordable housing,’ most people think that we’re referring to projects or neighborhoods where their socio-economic status is so low that it’s high crime, but it’s not that. Affordable housing is workforce housing also. It is housing for people who live at or below the area median income.”
It’s housing for lower middle class, or working class individuals and families.
The median household income in Flagler County is $62,000, according to the state’s Housing Finance Corporation. People qualify for various affordable housing programs based on their income relative to that median income. For example, a family of four making half the median income, or even 80 percent of the median income, would qualify for certain programs. That means teachers, firefighters, cops, workers in innumerable service jobs, all of them gainfully employed, all of them working one or more jobs, would qualify for some form of housing assistance.
What they would qualify for can be complicated, even arcane, but why they qualify is not. Affordable housing is out of reach for many. The median price for a single-family home last month in Flagler County was $255,000, or $15,000 more than a year ago, according to the Flagler County Association of Realtors’ latest figures. Do the math: a 30-year mortgage after $15,000 down would still cost close to $1,600 a month, when insurance and taxes are included. Annualized, that’s almost half the salary of a starting teacher in the county.
“Your housing allowance shouldn’t be anymore than 30 percent of your budget,” Shank continues in the video. So we’re hoping to help people understand that everyone deserves to have a decent place to live, a safe community to live in, and affordable housing is critical to the economic stability and vitality of a community.”
Rentals aren’t necessarily more accessible. As Ralston Reodica, the State Housing Initiative Partnership program coordinator at the county, says in the same video, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,100, requiring a $45,000 salary a year to afford a two-bedroom place. That’s $21.60 an hour. Yet there are only 11 affordable homes per 100 people who need one.
That’s the crisis. Tuesday evening’s forum’s goal, hosted by the Flagler County Association of Realtors in Bunnell, was to change the mindset about affordable housing and broaden support for it in all local communities. “We have some stories that we hope will compel you and help you to understand that again everyone is in need of and everyone is deserving of affordable housing,” she says.
Audio: Toby Tobin’s Real Estate Matters:
On Affordable Housing (Nov. 2)
The forum drew some 60 people, including many elected officials–two from the county commission, two from the school board, three from the Flagler Beach City Commission and two from the Bunnell City Commission, not including top executives. Palm Coast was represented by Jose Papa, a senior planner.
“Everyone up here is concerned about affordable housing, housing stability,” Shank told the assembly as she introduced a panel of eight people, some of them experts in the field, one of them a former homeless person for seven years in Flagler, one of them a former addict who’d lost custody of her children before becoming the program manager of a homeless prevention organization.
“We have over half the students that are enrolled in our teen schools on free and reduced lunch,” Pamela Jackson-Smith, who coordinates the programs for homeless children and families in transitions at the school district, said. “That is evidence that we have high poverty and that we do need affordable housing.” The numbers got bleaker: 448 of the district’s 13,000-some students are in “shared housing,” which is still considered a form of homelessness: families and children don’t have a home of their own. Twenty-three children were in substandard housing, 37 in motels, 21 in shelters, for a total of over 500 students who fit the definition of homelessness.
Ashon Nesbitt, a research analyst with the Florida Housing Coalition, described himself as “the face of affordable housing.” He had two master’s degrees and was still living in subsidized housing when he graduated: he’d not have made it otherwise as he was getting started in his career.
Nesbitt addressed interactions between developers and local governments–how policies in planning and zoning can work toward facilitating affordable housing: “If someone comes in and wants to develop 100 acres of farmland, they’re likely going to have to get a rezoning to do that,” he said, “ and just by signing a piece of paper you have created value in that piece of property, just by bringing it from farmland to be able to do however many numbers of units. So as a community, by giving that value essentially, by a stroke of the pen, what are you going to give back? We call it value-capture. By giving you this value to do this rezoning, we as a community would like to get some portion back to benefit the entire community.” That’s the theory behind “inclusionary housing,” which he said is supported by state law. Increasing densities or providing some discounts on impact fees would enable developers to “come out on top,” a necessity if any community is to attract developers willing to build along those standards.
But “inclusionary housing” is one of those terms that triggers defensive reactions from existing neighborhoods because of the myths surrounding many forms of affordable housing. On the other hand, Palm Coast’s Town Center is now rapidly sprouting two major apartment developments enabled through regulations tailored for the area, with hopes of alleviating the apartment–and affordable apartment–shortage in the city.
Besides combating the not-in-my-backyard myths of affordable housing, Shank is hoping the forum is a springboard to a countywide affordable housing group (though one already exists under the banner of Flagler Cares, and the county has its own housing advisory committee). The new group would be called Flagler Homes for All Coalition. The main focus will be to advocate for affordable housing, she says.
“If we can create a workforce here, and housing that’s affordable for the workforce, that’s going to hopefully draw in economic development,” she said.
Hearing fresh policy ideas was one of the reasons County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien was at the forum. “I think we have a very unfortunate stigma in Flagler County and Palm Coast particularly with folks not understanding” affordable housing, he said. “We have such a stigma with multi-family housing and the thought that it affects, lowers values in communities, and that’s really not the case. We have a lot of work to do to change that thinking, and we have an absolute responsibility to provide affordable housing for our working class citizens. Tons of them are our employees in city government, county government, the sheriff’s department, teachers. We need to step up to the plate to try to help. There’s no immediate fix. It’s a combination of things that support groups can do, nonprofits can do, but government can help from a policy stand-point and that’s my interest tonight.”