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First Coast nonprofit leader: ‘You can’t do affordable housing by yourself’

By Stuart Korfhage – Daily Editor
Jacksonville Business Journal
Feb 6, 2023

Bill Lazar has been in the business of helping to develop low-cost housing in Northeast Florida for more than two decades, and those efforts have never been more essential.
As both home prices and rental rates have soared on the First Coast, finding places for workers to live has been a problem for employers’ expansion plans and for businesses in industries like hospitality and health care just to stay afloat.

That’s especially true in St. Johns County, which is growing rapidly but becoming less affordable.

As executive director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership, Lazar works with the building community to provide affordable housing options in order to “stabilize the workforce.” The nonprofit will often purchase land and development it just to build housing that can be purchased or rented below market value.

It also provides repair services to help low-income homeowners stay in their homes. Lazar said SJHP worked on about 200 homes just last year.

Recently, Lazar was one of several community leaders who spoke at a St. Johns County Commission meeting in support of creating a local housing authority due to the rising costs and lack of affordable housing for those who are not above-average wage earners.
The measure failed by a 3-2 vote to further the consideration of a housing authority, mainly on the grounds of not wanting to create another “big government” program for the county to manage.

But there is hope in some corners that the issue will be revisited in the near future — perhaps with parameters that would satisfy the small government concerns.
Lazar said there could be a lot of benefits to such a creation.

“It could be another tool in our affordable housing toolbox, something that allows us as a collective community to leverage funds,” Lazar said.

Solving the housing problem isn’t something that’s going to be done by one government program or office, Lazar said. The same goes for one or two nonprofits. SJHP, for example, is a small operation that provides some relief to local families, but its scope is limited.

That means Lazar sees his organization as just one of many pieces to find a solution.
“You can’t do affordable housing by yourself,” Lazar said. “You’ve got to have builders, developers, local government and lenders all willing to say: ‘I’ll do a little bit to help.’
“And if everybody does, then it might happen.”

As the leader of an organization that does develop property, Lazar knows the problems that for-profit companies face when they try to enter the affordable housing sector.
There’s a reason that new homes generally start at close to $400,000 in St. Johns County. The price to buy property, develop it, provide infrastructure and then build the actual home is steep in this area.

That’s why Lazar advocates for the government to help out where it can.
“When the government says ‘We’re not going to help with infrastructure,’ the developer has to carry, build it and pay for it then the developer goes, ‘Then it can’t be very affordable,'” Lazar said. “If everybody would sit down together and say ‘OK let’s all share this a little bit’ … now it becomes feasible.”

SJHP has a history of working with local governments, banks, nonprofits and others to bring more affordable projects to the market. It’s currently building a small apartment complex for a-risk veterans called Patriot Place in St. Augustine.