BRADENTON -- A lack of affordable rental housing for millennial-age and low-wage Manatee County workers came under scrutiny from segments of the private sector Thursday when the issue got a rare airing outside of government and chamber of commerce meetings.
Keying on six months of research and education efforts undertaken by a county-sponsored task force, Manatee Tiger Bay Club members projected their views on a discussion that reached the fore in a county commission meeting this week. What they wanted to know above anything else is whether government has an accurate view of how to solve the problem.
With the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment at about $1,140 a month, Manatee County is a difficult place to afford rent. While Florida is ranked as the 19th most expensive state in the nation for rentals, incomes aren't keeping up locally. A 2014 United Way study showed 43 percent of county residents live on the edge of poverty. Rents are so high, say mem
bers of the Manatee Millennial Movement task force, many pay more than 50 percent of their income toward it. The acknowledged financially responsible standard is 30 percent.
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County staff and Bradenton officials say they are addressing the shortage of affordable "workforce housing" by rewriting development codes to encourage developers to build more lower-rent apartment projects. They're also looking to offer more incentive money to encourage those projects.
But Tiger Bay member Steve Vernon said he is skeptical of involving government in the housing equation.
"Why do government entities have so little faith in free market system?" he asked speakers attending the meeting to talk about the issue.
One of those speakers, Bradenton planning director Tim Polk, said housing projects that charge less than market rent are a hard sell to developers. It's particularly difficult in Bradenton, where property would have to be redeveloped to make room for rental housing.
"We would love the free market economy to develop the city," he said. "But redevelopment is tough. We need to incentivize the private sector."
Home builder and Tiger Bay member John Neal said the affordable rental housing issue goes deeper than the number of units on the market.
"I feel the problem millennials struggle with here is J-O-B-S," he said. "The truth is, for millennials and those who can't afford expensive homes is it's going to get worse."
Neal also suggested that county and city officials consider doubling housing densities to allow for more cost-effective development.
Regardless of the solution, those advocating at the meeting for more workforce housing said it needs to come soon. Ogden Clark, a member of the millennial task force speaking to the club, said that within the next five years, people born between 1980 and 2000 are expected to make up 45 percent of Manatee County's work force. Currently the county's high cost of living and a lack of community amenities are driving those workers away. The currently make up 21 percent of the work force.
"We need to attract and retain those millennials," he said.
The third panel presenter at the meeting, Manatee Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Jackie Dezelski, said the flagship business organization supports meeting young workers' needs.
"This is the time for advocacy," she said.
Future efforts by the task force, which is associated with Manatee County's Neighborhood Services department, are expected to include garnering more feedback from housing developers and starting conversations with multi-family housing lenders.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.