Housing affordability crisis: ‘A fundamental business issue’

Palm Beach North Chamber panel explores what has to be done to make sure ‘the people you see every day’ can afford to live here.

workforce housing

As housing prices rise and supply dips, it’s becoming harder and harder for essential workers like nurses, teachers and police to find places to live in northern Palm Beach County.

That makes it harder for businesses to find employees.

And that’s one way that the area’s housing affordability crisis affects everyone, agreed four panelists Wednesday at the Palm Beach North Chamber’s “Business Before Hours” breakfast at the Embassy Suites hotel.

“This is a fundamental business issue,” said panelist Scott Hansel, chief executive of Community Partners of South Florida. He estimated 60 percent of his 250 employees face difficult housing choices. 

Even the exuberant real estate market will be harmed if essential workers can’t afford to live here, said Christina Pappas, a vice president at The Keyes Co. and Illustrated Properties.

“Without our front line workers, there’s really no homes to sell,” Pappas said while introducing the speakers.

affordable housing
Jack Weir, president of Eastwind Development, makes a point at Wednesday’s Palm Beach North Chamber discussion. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment starting at $2,000 a month, “the numbers don’t work right now,” said panelist Jack Weir, president of Palm Beach Gardens-based Eastwind Development.

A worker paid $40,000 a year might only have $700 a month left after paying that much for housing, said Hansel, whose Riviera Beach-based nonprofit focuses on behavioral health, housing and community services.

“It’s going to take a collective effort, everybody working together, in order to solve this,” said panelist Jonathan Brown, housing and economic sustainability director for Palm Beach County.

$60 million in federal relief

Palm Beach North Chamber
Jonathan Brown, housing and economic sustainability director for Palm Beach County, answers a question Wednesday on a Palm Beach North Chamber panel as Scott Hansel, chief executive of Community Partners of South Florida, looks on. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

County zoning rules require affordable housing be part of new developments with the home prices set by the county and the developer benefiting from extra density, Brown said.

The county also is putting $60 million in federal pandemic relief money toward building homes on vacant county properties. Officials are looking at swaps, where a homeowner will trade a run-down home for a new one and the county will fix up the old home and sell it. 

Flexible zoning rules that allow apartment buildings on land once set aside exclusively for stores would help too, said panelist George Gentile, a land planner and founder of 2GHO in Jupiter.  

One day, the parking lots at the Gardens Mall might have apartment buildings on it, Weir said.

UF takes over Scripps Florida, Part 1: The Deal

Part 2: What happens to the 70 vacant acres at Alton?

workforce housing
Palm Beach North Chamber panelists Scott Hansel, CEO of Community Partners of South Florida; and George Gentile, founder and senior partner at 2GHO in Jupiter. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

$200 million county bond issue?

While such efforts date back decades, Palm Beach County is weighing a massive step that would produce $200 million to spend over 10 years on affordable housing.
A committee has been meeting monthly to pursue an idea first voiced by County Commissioner Mack Bernard before the pandemic to borrow $150 million or $200 million, repaid by property taxes, to offset housing costs. 

At $200 million, the bond issue could provide a $10,000 subsidy for 20,000 housing units over 10 years, Weir said. That would help meet the area housing shortage pegged at 2,000 units every year. 

But it wouldn’t pay outright for a new home.

To build 20 subsidized townhomes in unincorporated Lake Worth Beach in a partnership with the Community Land Trust of Palm Beach County, Hansel said after the session that even with a subsidy of $86,000 per home provided by GL Homes, the price of a home will top $168,000.  

Facing 190 potential homeowners in need, Hansel said, his organization could help put just 10 percent of them in homes. “The gaps are tough and getting tougher,” he said.

Even low-income buyers are facing tough choices.

“People say they don’t want to live in the neighborhood,” he said. “Well, you probably can’t afford to live in that neighborhood now.”

Marino

However, a county bond issue would have to go before voters and the county also is contemplating a 1 percent sales tax for transportation and a bond issue to preserve water resources. 

“Are you all in favor?” County Commissioner Maria Marino asked from the audience about the three potential taxes. Surveying the room, she answered: “I didn’t see any hands raised.”

© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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