The Post Editorial Board has consistently and commendably championed the need for more workforce housing in Palm Beach County, and the recent Housing Summit attended by over 500 local government officials and community leaders demonstrated a recognition by the broader community as to the urgency of the problem and its impact on attracting business to the county.
The problem affects both prospective homeowners and renters. For households seeking to purchase a single-family home, the median price rose to $335,000 in May, 7.9 percent above the year-earlier level, and 4.9 times the area median income of $67,900 for a family of four; a ratio of 3.0 is considered normal. The median price for the more limited supply of condominiums and townhouses increased to $179,500, an 8.8 percent increase from May 2016. The median monthly rent in Palm Beach County rose to $1,895 in May 2017. As a result, more than 40 percent of households in the county paid more than 30 percent of their household income for housing, and over 20 percent paid over 50 percent.
There are a number of steps that local government officials can take to increase the production of workforce housing. The county’s existing inclusionary zoning policy can allow required workforce housing to be built off-site in municipalities and provide alternatives to direct payments to the county, while the existing county impact fee credit program can be expanded for use across the county. In addition to density bonuses, fee waivers and expedited permitting, a number of municipalities, most notably West Palm Beach and Jupiter, have begun experimenting with dedicated funding sources to provide gap financing for workforce housing developments. A county-wide dedicated funding source would be a significant advance.
Unfortunately, the state legislature in Tallahassee has not helped the cause. Florida was a national leader in 1992 in establishing an affordable housing trust fund with documentary stamp tax proceeds. However, for over 10 years, starting under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature has swept housing trust funds into the general revenue fund to spend for other purposes. The result is a shortfall of $1.3 billion in funds since the start of the Great Recession that would otherwise have been used to produce new housing, rehabilitate existing housing and provide down-payment assistance to prospective homeowners. Now, an ill-advised constitutional amendment to increase the homestead exemption, scheduled to be on the ballot in November 2018, will threaten county and municipal government finances, and further hinder their ability to support local workforce housing efforts.
The Economic Council of Palm Beach County recognized the need over a decade ago, creating a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, Housing Leadership Council of the Palm Beaches, to promote policy ideas, advocate housing funding and issue period reports documenting the need.
There is a general consensus that the entire community benefits when residents can live closer to work and are not straining to make a monthly housing payment. However, the concern is that workforce housing is a “bridesmaid” issue, seen as desirable, but ultimately secondary in the minds of policymakers to other priorities. Until this attitude changes, we won’t make a dent in the problem.
JOHN “JACK” F. WEIR, PALM BEACH GARDENS
Editor’s note” Weir is president of Eastwind Development in Palm Beach Gardens.