Housing prices an impediment to many seeking financial stability

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13908141Just as in the rest of Florida, St. Johns County has significant reliance on low-wage workers — and plenty of people who need those jobs.

But upsetting that simple equation is the fact that there is a short supply of housing that those making $8-10 an hour can possibly afford.

That’s just one of the problems facing those at the low end of the earning spectrum.

According a report by the United Way’s ALICE Project, a significant portion of St. Johns County households and those across the state struggle to make enough money to provide for the basic necessities. ALICE is an acronym for the asset limited, income constrained, employed — people sometimes referred to as the working poor.

One of the major hurdles to achieving financial stability is the ability to obtain affordable, quality housing.

“Finding both housing affordability and job opportunities in the same location remains a challenge for ALICE households,” the report says. “Florida’s housing stock does not match current needs. Across the state, there are not enough rental units that are affordable: There are more than twice as many ALICE and poverty renters as there are rental units that they can afford.”

The scarcity is hard on workers and employers alike, said Bill Lazar, executive director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership.

“If you don’t have available affordable housing, you lose that workforce,” he said.

According to the United Way report, the average single person will need $630 per month for housing, and a family of two adults, a pre-school child and an infant will need to spend $834 per month (based on 2012 market data).

That can be a tough stretch for families who are supported by those making $10 or less an hour.

To simply get by, a St. Johns County family of two adults, a pre-school child and an infant will need to have an income of $47,919. If two adults make $10 in 40-hour-a-week jobs, they would have a gross income of $41,600.

“The Florida economy is now more dependent on low-paying service jobs than on higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs,” the United Way report says. “Sixty-nine percent of all jobs in Florida pay less than $20 per hour ($40,000 per year if full time), and more than half (54 percent) pay less than $15 per hour.”

Families with older children might be able to cut costs on child care, and those who live close to work might lower the costs of transportation, but it’s very difficult to find sufficient housing under $800 a month in St. Johns County.

And in some areas, it’s impossible.

That’s why organizations like United Way, St. Johns Housing Partnership, Habitat for Humanity and others step forward.

Melissa Nelson, executive director at United Way of St. Johns County, said there are few things more disruptive to a family than an unstable housing situation.

It’s especially true for those with children in school. An unexpected change in the housing situation can force parents to move children to a different school if they lose their house or rental unit.

Nelson said it’s virtually impossible for families to find housing for less than $1,000 per month in some parts of the county.

“Clearly, you’re impacted by what part of the county you live in,” she said.

The United Way provides some funding for several organizations that help people find their way into a better situation.

“Short-term intervention by family, employers, nonprofits and government can mitigate crises for financially unstable households and possibly prevent an economic spiral downward,” the United Way report says.

St. Augustine’s Ivory Anderson knows exactly how a little assistance change a financial situation.

Anderson, 31, just moved into a new home built by Habitat for Humanity.

The house is a great change for her family that includes five children aged 7-14, including twins.

She works as a medical assistant, but struggled to pay her monthly $800 rent on an apartment in Whispering Woods. Anderson said she was fortunate enough to be able to live at a property owned by First Baptist Church in Lincolnville until the Habitat home was built.

Paying the interest-free mortgage back to Habitat, Anderson is building up her credit and her equity while providing her family with a quality place to live. It’s something that could potentially change her financial situation for the rest of her life.

And that’s the point of the program.

“It’s a good thing I decided to start with them at such a young age,” Anderson said. “I’ll be a homeowner before I’m 50.”

Alia Reimer, executive director at Habitat for Humanity of St. Johns County, said Anderson is exactly the kind of person her organization is trying to help.

“It’s taking them out of the poverty cycle,” Reimer said. “I believe everything starts at home.”

Lazar believes the same thing, and the St. Johns Housing Partnership offers a variety of assistance programs.

He says it’s a necessity because their are so few affordable rental properties in the county. The program owns some rental units and houses. It also provides assistance with downpayments and home repairs.

Keeping people in their homes is as much a part of Lazar’s job as putting people in them.

He said something as simple as a wheelchair ramp and a modified bathroom can allow seniors to remain in their own homes longer.

And helping a family get a leaky roof replaced or a new water heater can be life-changing for households not earning enough money to save for such costly maintenance. There is a waiting list of about 300 St. Johns County families seeking some kind of assistance, Lazar said.

Like other organizations, Lazar said those who volunteer services or donate money or materials allow St. Johns Housing Partnership to expand its reach.

“What I like about St Johns County is we still have people who have a strong sense of community,” Lazar said.

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