The average Manatee County worker with a family of four can’t afford more than $1,200 in rent or above a $150,000 mortgage.
Prices for single-family homes in the area have gone up on average by 19 percent, from $266,500 to $317,500, in an eight-month period last year. In January, the typical apartment rent was $1,148, an increase of 4 percent. The average pay raise this year is expected to just meet 3 percent.
As wages are slow to meet the growth of the housing market, Manatee County commissioners say their action on affordable housing is long overdue.
Geri Lopez, director of the county’s redevelopment and economic opportunity department, gave a reality breakdown during a work session Tuesday. The department has already adopted a program that will pay impact fees for affordable rental and housing projects as well as a one-year action plan for federal Housing and Urban Development funds, but more can be done.
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“The desire and demand is there,” said Denise Thomas, housing and community development manager in the department.
One thing that could soon make a difference is allowing for more density to pique the developers’ interest. The county is currently making changes to the land development code and comprehensive plan, and the board of county commissioners is expected to adopt the revised comprehensive plan by September and the land development code by December.
Currently, Lopez said that the current rules allow for 40 units per acre “if a density bonus for affordable housing is approved and it is a mixed-use development.” Without the bonus, it’s 16 units per acre. Lopez’s department has pushed for these increases in density, including 20 units per acre allowed in urban corridors and 24 units per acre in commercial areas.
But they still struggle with funding to reach a greater amount of people.
In fiscal year 2016-17, Manatee County received $1.8 million from the State Housing Initiative Partnership, which diverts funds to local governments for more affordable housing programs like helping to buy, repair or replace a home for families of certain income. The following year, the county got $1.3 million. Now, they expect that it will be half of what they received.
“We do have funding for the last two years that we’re working through,” Lopez said. In the two years before 2016-17, they had no funds from this partnership to work with. “The less funding we have then the less we can serve.”
With these three programs, they serve on average about 30 people per year.
“That’s horrible,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh about this figure.
“Heart-wrenching,” Commissioner Charles Smith said, adding that he thought the annual random drawing for rehabilitation funds was “flawed.”
Commissioner Betsy Benac said she remembers that as a planner in the early 1990s, she was discussing increasing lot density.
“It’s our fault that people can’t build these smaller units in higher densities,” she said.
Ed Pinto, co-director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Housing Markets and Finance, said that the county needs to look into out-of-the-box ideas to cut costs while increasing services. A shuttle service for residents living in affordable housing complexes to travel to and from work, or building homes under $100,000.
“You’ve made it basically illegal to build these units because they can’t be built cost effectively (with the current rules in place),” Pinto said.
One example Lopez said the department has looked at is through inspiration by the city of Tampa. The county could sponsor rezoning or spend money to “get sites ready” with utilities and other services already available.
Whatever is the magic solution, or culmination of improvements, the time has come for county leaders to address a decades-old problem, Benac said.
“We’ve been talking about it and talking about it,” she said. “If we don’t do it, proverbial shame on us.”