Let’s Not Overlook The Economic Development Benefits Of Providing Affordable Housing

By Bill Lazar

New homes and communities make all the headlines. Not the lack of affordable housing in Northeast Florida that negatively impacts the local economy and makes life for diligent workers and families that much harder.

Stable, decent-quality, and affordable housing is critical for our communities and the overall economy. Housing instability can impede workers’ ability to secure and maintain employment.

Housing costs (rent or mortgage) should be around 30 percent of your income. When you are paying closer to 50 percent of your income for housing, you are one step away from a crisis.

Persons who live in affordable housing tend to be more stable, long-term employees because they do not need to move so often and face difficulties coming to work regularly.

We have first responders, law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel, who must live out of the county they serve due to not being able to find affordable housing. The same holds true for hospital and medical workers.

Businesses benefit by having a stable employee population because it reduces employee turnover and related costs in training new employees. It also reduces problems associated with lack of dependability as to whether enough employees will show up to work.

You have seen the signs. Help wanted or worse, closed, or reduced hours. The local restaurant, hospitality and retail industries are facing the same dilemma. Unable to find and keep employees, and their doors open.

Even the construction labor force is dwindling in this robust housing boom. Builders and developers are in their chosen field to make money. No one questions that fact.

State, and local government policies should encourage affordable housing, including programs that provide incentives for private sector developers and builders to build affordable housing (for example, providing density bonuses or other regulatory relief if they include a certain number of affordable housing units in their projects).

This can be an important way to grow the economy and contribute to the overall prosperity of the entire community.

Local governments, builders and community leaders have the capacity to influence and increase affordability. The challenge is assembling the ingredients to make more affordability happen quickly.

Sounds easy enough.

But those in power and have access to funding and legislation to ease the burden on the workforce must be held accountable and become engaged in finding a solution.

The ugly truth is if their constituents don’t need (or understand it) it’s not a priority or sense of urgency. Northeast Florida has millions of federal dollars in COVID relief funds. Some should be allocated for affordable housing.

Let us develop meaningful, measurable goals and strategies that promote the development of affordable workforce housing to meet local needs and monitor progress toward meeting those goals.

Another challenge is real estate investors are buying land and homes that could be earmarked for affordable housing.

But deals by institutional investors and home flippers have helped push up U.S. house prices by more than 20 percent, according to a Moody analysis. They have hurt the ability to provide affordable housing.

The Jacksonville MSA that includes St. Johns County had one of the biggest surges in investor buying resulting in some of the biggest price gains in the nation according to CoreLogic.

It’s time to support non-profit agencies, government funding and public/private partnerships to preserve or develop additional housing for low- and moderate-income households. They need both starter homes and affordable rentals.

One way is the donation or sale of property to non-profit housing agencies to pave the way for much needed affordable housing.

(Bill Lazar is Executive Director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership (SJHP) in St. Augustine. The non-profit SJHP creates and maintains safe, clean, affordable housing and offers a variety of services including housing counseling. He can be contacted at [email protected].)