Manatee County’s affordable housing stock is dreadful, to put it somewhat mildly, but that state of affairs is nothing new. Unaffordable housing — and segregation — are apt descriptions of the marketplace for renters hoping to find a place that will not drain their resources.
Home purchases remain a dream for the working poor as prices continue to rebound sharply from the Great Recession. The median sales price for a single-family home rose to $285,000 in June — up 12.4 percent from last June. For condos, the price increased by 11.6 percent to $173,000. And inventory is low. Manatee County is a popular place to live. Renters and prospective home buyers with little income have been left out in the cold.
When the family services manager for Manatee County Habitat for Humanity calls current rental units “absolutely deplorable” and discrimination against potential tenants rampant, that should be a call to action for this community. Didi Hager, that Habitat executive, put another emphatic description on this situation, saying, “In my estimation, it is criminal what these landlords are charging for the places that are falling down around them.”
Imagine being so desperate for a roof over your family that you become captive to a what amounts to a slum lord, like Hager describes. Imagine paying around $900 a month for tenement housing without a functioning refrigerator or air conditioner and mold in the shower, as Hager told Herald reporter Claire Aronson for an eye-opening article last Sunday.
‘Land of opportunity’ nonexistent for too many Americans
Market conditions favor landlords by far. Tenants forced to pay that $900 a month have little choice if they want shelter. Those people, Hager noted, “don’t qualify for a conventional mortgage and they are just exploited by landlords that know they have to have a place to live and can charge whatever they want to charge.”
This so-called land of opportunity puts the disadvantaged at the mercy of the advantaged. In this rental situation here in Manatee County, that is criminal. A harsh description indeed but one all too familiar with the homeless, left to sleep in cars, on the floors of friends’ dwellings, out in the woods, anywhere and everywhere.
Developers should not be held responsible for this situation. Some try to build affordable housing, but even the lowest prices are out of the range of many working poor. Builders must recoup construction expenses else they go bankrupt. The argument that “wealthy” developers can afford to take a loss on affordable housing in order to serve a higher purpose — humanitarianism and the community — makes a strong point, but business is not in business to give away product.
But one is. Harvey Vengroff of Sarasota. The wealthy philanthropist purchased an old motel in Bradenton to convert into affordable rental units. And he moved quickly after closing on the 240-room Knights Inn a month ago. The First Street property offers furnished apartments for only $625 a month (which generously includes water, electricity, cable and internet), and more than 10 rooms are already occupied. Vengroff, who paid $4.4 million for the motel and then pumped $1.5 million into renovations, also plans to build apartments on the adjacent five acres. This is not the first venture into affordable housing for the businessman, who has also converted motels in Sarasota County. Kudos to Vengroff for his dedication to providing affordable housing — and requiring tenants to hold jobs.
Jail, not incarceration, could be another part of the solution
While Manatee County government is not in the real estate business, civil servants could soon become landlords, too. How so? By putting people in the Old Jail in downtown Bradenton. The county hopes to entice a developer into converting the vacant six-story building into affordable workforce housing with some commercial and retail spots on the lower floors. This would be a triple win for downtown, by placing residents in a desirable area who will frequent the enterprises nearby and by putting a empty building back on the tax rolls. The county seeks a long-term lease with application proposals due Sept. 15.
Affordability is one part of the problem. Segregation is the other. The executive director of the city’s nonprofit organization that serves the homeless, Turning Points at the Bill Galvano One Stop Center, cited discrimination as a key barrier to renting. Of landlords, Adell Erozer told Aronson, “They can pretty much cheery-pick who they want. While it might not look like discrimination, they are going to choose that person that will give them the greatest return.”
While that is an entirely different aspect of the affordable housing crunch, its impact on families and individuals is repugnant and fair housing advocates are poised to attack the problem through public education for both landlords and tenants. Manatee County should add some muscle to its 2010 Fair Housing Plan, which still lacks money to enforce its provisions. What good is a weapon to combat segregation that lacks ammunition?
Affordable housing for one and all should be a very high priority — especially in a county dependent on service workers who are paid poorly.