Editorial: ‘Workforce housing’ question needs better answer

Sarah Elsesser
January 25, 2017

Editorial: ‘Workforce housing’ question needs better answer

opinion

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Palm Beach County administrator Verdenia Baker, seen here at a county commission meeting, has been conducting a top-down review of the county’s Workforce Housing Program. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Posted: 8:56 a.m. Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Palm Beach County has a problem with affordable housing — still.

Eighteen months and eight county-sponsored workshops meant to retool an inadequate Workforce Housing Program, and there appears to be little disagreement among stakeholders that there is a need for more affordable housing — still.

But as one participant at a December 2015 workshop said at the time: “The devil is in the details.” Apparently, it still is.

The issue was highlighted again on Monday in a story by The Post’s Wayne Washington about the collapse of a deal to sell Grand Lake Apartments. Miami developer Housing Trust Group had intended to buy the run-down Belle Glade housing complex for $50 million in public and private money for a complete rebuild. But now, county officials and complex owner Ytech International have chosen to repair units and keep residents there.

Why? Because there’s no suitable affordable housing to move some 200 residents to.

“I wish I had housing inventory that I could move these people into, but I don’t,” said Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Belle Glade. “My choice is putting them on the street or fix the units.”

But Grand Lake is indicative of a larger, ongoing problem the county has with workforce housing. There’s just too little of it.

We’re not talking government-funded housing for the poor. This is housing meant for teachers, assistant state attorneys and public defenders, firefighters, police officers and other public-sector workers. It is also meant for private-sector employees such as accounting specialists, retail store managers and nurses.

With the countywide average annual household income at roughly $45,000, many such white-collar workers can’t afford much of the housing that dominates the county’s stock — or coming in such developments in the pipeline as Avenir and Westlake.

There’s not as much profit for builders in workforce housing, typically priced in the $100,000-$250,000 range. As a result, developers opt to pay a fee in lieu of including such housing in their plans.

For a growing county in the midst of a real estate-fueled economic resurgence, this should be unacceptable to just about everyone. To that end, Jupiter adopted its own Workforce Housing Program based on a mandatory “inclusionary” zoning ordinance. Palm Beach Gardens managed to squeeze 250 “workforce housing” units out of Avenir’s planned 3,250 homes. And West Palm Beach is offering financial incentives to encourage developers to include workforce housing in their downtown residential projects.

The message here for the county: Fees, unless truly punitive, don’t work. Try something else.

“Bottom line,” County Administrator Verdenia Baker told The Post Editorial Board, “when we talk to potential employers about locating here, there are three things they focus on: education, culture and where their employees will live. We’ve done pretty well with the first two, but we’re still struggling with housing.”

That statement was 18 months, eight workshops and one big residential survey ago, and county commissioners still are struggling with putting their collective foot down on this issue.

We don’t want to see development stifled. But neither do we want to see young families struggle to buy a first home because nothing is available for under $300,000. Yet the latter is happening more and more, sending those families to Port St. Lucie to find affordable housing.

That’s not what those families want. That’s not what employers want. That’s not what county commissioners should want. The time to tackle this issue is now.

There’s not as much money in workforce housing, typically priced in the $100,000-$250,000 range.

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