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Boca Raton News - December 17, 2006

Affordable housing – The debate and some solutions
by By John Johnston

Editor’s Note: The skyrocketing cost of housing has become a major factor in business relocation decision-making, and in the decision-making of whether those workers who provide services, i.e., teachers, firemen, and others, can afford to come or remain here.  This issue has in turn found government at all levels wrestling with a multitude of potential ways to address it.  The following analysis looks at the question. Your letters to the editor are welcome.
News Analysis

Just do the math, and it’s painfully obvious that Palm Beach County – in particular South County -- has some economic clouds on the horizon.
School enrollment – a figure that local officials felt would soar for years to come – is dropping.  And at the vortex of the drop is South County.
School enrollment this school year is down by 3,221 students. What’s more significant is that South County lost 2,880 of those students.  That’s nearly 90 percent of the total decline – right here in South County.

Some Ideas

On the plate for County Commissioners Nov. 21 was modification of the Unified Land Development Code Ordinance – which included workforce-housing provisions. For many months commissioners have discussed and debated the issues, touching on many possible approaches, primarily favorable to developers, including:

• Accepting a tiered approach to the number of workforce housing units required at any given new construction site, versus a flat percentage of units.

• Allowing multiple ways by which the workforce housing requirements could be met, including the ability to build off-site or purchase existing units.

• Allowing clustering of workforce housing units when constructed on site.

• Providing for maximum flexibility when locating units in a development and how they are designed by not specifying the square footages of a unit or location.

What in fact commissioners finally did Nov. 21, and according to Commissioner Mary McCarty, was not much.

“Affordable housing is a crisis,” McCarty told The Boca Raton News, adding:

“And what was passed is not going to solve the problem -- but it’s a start.”

What in fact commissioners approved Nov. 21 was a requirement that builders provide workforce-priced homes (between $164,000 and $304,000) in new developments that have 10 or more residences.  Commissioners agreed to look at the affordable housing issue again in a year, but pledged to work in the meantime to deal with a problem that finds less than 25 percent of county residents able to purchase a home.

In The Cities

Officials in Delray Beach said that city has done more to promote affordable housing that most area communities.

City Commissioner Jon Levinson said the list of things is long. At the heart of it is an ordinance that encourages contractors to add affordable units to their developments. As a result, they may construct more market-rate residences.

The city was one of the first to create a Community Land Trust to encourage workforce units.

Delray has a complex of workforce homes already built, and is currently rehabilitating the former La France Hotel downtown for affordable homes.

The commission recently adopted an ordinance encouraging multi-use development along the Congress Avenue corridor.  The residential component encourages developers to put in affordable homes.

In Boca Raton, the wheels of government are turning more slowly.  The effort to bring workforce housing began in 2004 when the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce offered the City Council a “white paper” report.  A year later, that grew into a proposed ordinance – still being worked on by city staff.

Actually, the ordinance was set for a hearing several months ago, but was pulled at the last minute because of changes that came out of a council workshop.

Boca may solve the problem by setting up a land trust.  Stiles Corp., which has gotten the city’s OK to build 172 units on Broken Sound Boulevard, is to give the city $3 million in lieu of building affordable units.  That money is earmarked for the trust.

The School District

Exorbitant housing costs not meeting salaries have also made it difficult for the School District of Palm Beach County to recruit and retain teachers.

“We have become aware that teachers are having a hard time finding affordable workforce housing, and we value teachers and want to keep them here,” said Sue Walters, District Human Resource Specialist.

Teachers at low-income family schools are especially feeling the crunch.

School Board members unanimously approved Wednesday an affordable housing grant to partner with MerryPlace Development LLC. This means the district will put down money for down payment assistance for teachers at low-income family schools.

Board approved placing $502,500 toward down payment assistance for eligible teachers at Title I schools with the funding coming from Title II funds.

The development at MerryPlace consists of 128 rental apartments, 46 town homes, 52 condominiums and 18 new single-family homes on 14 acres in the City of West Palm Beach. The project is scheduled for thorough completion by Dec. 2008 with the first units being available in Dec. 2007. The City of West Palm Beach has contributed $8.9 million towards infrastructure for this project.
The School District of Palm Beach County also recently held a workforce housing expo to attract and retain more teachers and other school employees. District officials said the expo proved successful.

More than 400 people showed up to look at 60 vendors, according to Walters.

“It was successful,” Walters said. “It was a good mix of lenders, developers and builders there. And we had several people leaving the conference and going directly to look at the properties.”

Skyrocketing Taxes

In the meantime, county critics argue that a Florida TaxWatch study of the county begs the question of county concern about workforce/affordable housing.

Florida TaxWatch, through its Center for Local Government Studies, reviewed ten years of the Palm Beach County budgets, during which time property taxes grew 143 percent, total taxes grew 122 percent, while personal income grew by 62 percent, and the combined growth in inflation and the county’s population was 55 percent.

The study, commissioned by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County said that in fact, Palm Beach County, which already has one of the highest tax burdens in Florida, continues to raise taxes, despite having a nearly $900 million dollar reserve fund, the highest of any county in Florida.

County commissioners and County Administrator Bob Weisman have challenged both the numbers and conclusions of the report.

The Neighbors Say

In neighboring Miami-Dade County, the workforce-housing crisis is not much better – and officials there point to the need for both Broward and Palm Beach Counties to act – in order to help the region as a whole.  Some of the major items being promoted in Miami-Dade by the South Florida Community Development Coalition are:

Speed up the Permitting Process.  The approval process needs to be streamlined and accelerated for scattered site, single family infill development.  Suggestions include: "One-Stop Shopping" (all services surrounding the permitting process should be obtained from one designated department.

• Make Available Pre-Approved and Pre-Permitted Plans: The County should create and make available building plans that have been pre-approved and pre-permitted. This would speed up the approval process and reduce the amount of pre-development funds needed.

• Location Efficient Mortgages: Miami-Dade says mortgage products should be created that recognize the savings available to people who live in location efficient communities that are rich in public transit access.  It is possible for residents of such communities to survive without an automobile.  Using such a mortgage product lenders can count the available savings as additional income for people buying homes in location efficient communities so that people who might not otherwise qualify for a mortgage thus qualify.

• Density Bonuses: As in Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade says consideration should be given to rewarding builders who agree to build a certain number of affordable units or contribute money to a housing trust fund by authorizing them to construct more units than otherwise would be allowed. Delray Beach has in fact implemented a density bonus plan.

• Inclusionary Zoning: As a condition for approval, require residential developments above a certain size to include a specified number affordable units – (a plan thoroughly unliked by developers and most county commissioners here.)

• Collaborate to acquire vacant lots - County government would create a mechanism for mixing public dollars with private capital to facilitate the acquisition of vacant lots located in distressed neighborhoods. For example, the county could make available a line of credit for acquisition. Participating experienced infill developers (or a nonprofit intermediary) would be encouraged to aggressively seek out the owners of vacant lots and then negotiate purchase contracts.  The County's line of credit would be combined with bank financing to pay for the acquisition in cases where a high purchase price undermined economic feasibility for an affordable project. All or a portion of the County loan could be made forgivable if housing that was actually affordable was constructed on the property.

• Infill Housing Initiatives for Broward & Palm Beach Counties: And finally, Miami-Dade says local governments in Palm Beach and Broward “should institute new initiatives to encourage the development of housing on vacant lots in distressed neighborhoods.”

In Tallahassee

At the state level, Florida's legislature passed a bill in 2006 that in turn created the Community Workforce Housing Innovation Program – the first of its kind in the nation.  The program helps to fund and encourages local public-private partnerships to develop workforce housing for workers with incomes up to 140 percent of area median income. About $50 million was approved to fund the program statewide.  Additional legislation is being eyed for 2007.

At the end of the day, the American dream remains, if not unattainable, then elusive – like South Florida’s iguanas, which also aren’t natives.

City Editor Dale King and Staff Writer Nicol Jenkins contributed to this article.