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Sun Sentinal 2-9-03
Palm Beach County officials get to grips with low-cost housing
By Kathy Bushouse
Getting a handle on affordable housing could prove to be a tough task for the Palm
Beach County Commission.
Apartment rents and home values in the county already are well above the state average.
Vacant land is at a premium. Try to pitch an affordable housing project in an area
where few exist, and nearby residents sometimes rise up in protest.
Commissioners nonetheless have expressed their desire to spread low-cost housing
to other parts of the county while also offering as-yet undetermined incentives
to move from rentals into home ownership. On Feb. 18, the issue of affordable housing
lands on the commission's workshop agenda.
The goal: to look at the county's low-income housing situation, discuss the options
and clear up questions about its policies, County Administrator Bob Weisman said.
With commissioners saying they hoped to see more people owning rather than renting
homes, Weisman said some people have interpreted that to mean that the commission
wants to get rid of low-cost rental housing. He insists that's not the case.
"We need to clarify what the board position is, and people need to hear what
the board position is," Weisman said.
During the workshop, commissioners will discuss the county's housing needs, such
as what kinds of homes are needed, where they should be located, and what should
be done with existing homes.
The commission has, over the years, come up with a variety of ideas about how to
handle low-income housing. Commissioners have, at various points, suggested spending
county housing money to spruce up older low-cost communities rather than build new
ones. They have have asked to see fewer apartments and sought to have low-income
projects spread throughout the county instead of along the county's coast and in
central Palm Beach County.
Location of low-cost housing is a concern for Commissioner Warren Newell, whose
central Palm Beach County district has many affordable housing projects, creating
a drain on schools, police and fire protection and other services.
"It's not that we're saying, `No more,'" Newell said. "We're saying,
`Let's do a better job of locating them.'"
He also said he'd like to see more people trade renting for home ownership. That
means working on a plan to offer incentives to make that happen more often. The
types of incentives have yet to be determined.
That's a worthy goal, housing advocates say, but not always practical.
"Home ownership does not make sense for everybody," said Kim Schaffer,
spokeswoman for the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington.
"For low-income people, coming up with a down payment can often be more than
they're able to budget. You have low-income people [who] may need more portability
than owning a home provides. If you own a home and then you get a hole in the roof
or the boiler breaks, that's entirely on you."
In a county where 2000 U.S. Census figures show the median value of a home is $135,200
-- $30,000 more than the state average -- affordable housing can be hard to find.
In 1998 -- the last time the county looked at locations of affordable housing --
the county planning division found that of 420,000 homes in the county, 150,000
could be considered affordable.
Schaffer said there is not one place in the United States where someone making the
minimum wage of $5.15 an hour can afford to rent a modest one-bedroom apartment
on his own.
Rents in Palm Beach County are higher than in many other areas. Figures from the
National Low Income Housing Coalition show that in Florida, the fair market rent
for a one-bedroom apartment is $593. In the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton market, that
a similar would go for $663.
Those statistics show that in Florida, someone earning the minimum wage of $5.15
an hour can afford monthly rent of no more than $268. In the West Palm Beach-Boca
Raton market, a person making minimum wage would need to work 99 hours a week to
afford a one-bedroom apartment.
State support for affordable housing could face cuts in the coming Legislative session,
said Rob Ippolito, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Housing Coalition.
Cutting support for affordable housing could trigger even more problems, he said.
"We've got a lot of crises going on in the state," Ippolito said. "We
have a health care crisis. We have a prescription drug crisis. We have an education
crisis. We have a housing crisis. ... Our argument, and a lot of housing advocates
around the state [argue], is housing is where it all begins ... If people don't
have a place to live, you're going to have health care problems, you're going to
have education problems."
Kathy Bushouse can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6641