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Palm Beach County set to tackle big problem: Affordable housing

Verdenia Baker hears it from business executives. She hears it from elected officials. She even hears it when she’s at the grocery store.

“I often hear, ‘What are you going to do about housing?’” the Palm Beach County administrator said.

On Wednesday, the county plans to host a six-hour summit at the Palm Beach County Convention Center to tackle what Baker and others have described as the county’s affordable housing crisis.

Some 500 attendees have signed up, paying $25 each to present and listen to ideas for how to help low- and mid-wage workers in the county afford a place to live. Henry Cisneros, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Bill Clinton administration, will be the keynote speaker.

Affordable housing has long been a problem in the county, complicating efforts to address homelessness and making it harder for the county to bring in workers from other areas.

“They’ll agree to the salary,” Baker said of some potential employees the county has recruited. “They’ll come down. But when they come down and look at housing, they turn us down.”

In March, the median price for a single-family home in Palm Beach County was $325,000, up 8.9 percent from March 2016, according to figures from the Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches. The median price for condos and townhouses was $162,000 in March, a 4.5 percent increase from March 2016.

But median household incomes in the county only rose 3.8 percent from 2016 to 2017 — to $67,900 a year.

That equates to many in the county being squeezed hard by housing costs.

A rule of thumb suggests that housing should eat up no more than 30 percent of household income, but information from the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse shows that, in 2015, about 45 percent of Palm Beach County households paid more than 30 percent of income for housing. About 23 percent paid more than half of their household income for housing.

The county has a variety of programs designed to help people afford housing, but its best known one is referred to as workforce housing, so named because it’s designed to help those in the public workforce — sheriff’s deputies, firemen, teachers, mid-level government workers — afford housing.

Under the program, residential builders in the county are required to offer some housing units at lower-than-market prices; the number of required affordable homes is arrived at by a complex formula based on the total number of more expensive homes the developer builds. But the county’s program allows builders to pay an opt-out fee of about $81,500 for each affordable single-family home.

Cities in Palm Beach County with workforce housing programs have a much higher buy-out fee. Delray Beach, for example, charges $160,000, and in Jupiter the fee is $200,000.

The comparatively low buyout fee has been a factor in the low number of workforce housing units built in Palm Beach County during the 11 years of the program’s existence.

No single family houses were constructed through the workforce housing program and only 754 multi-family units were built, figures that angered county commissioners when they got an overview of the program in April.

“This has been a stated priority for the board for as long as I’ve been on the board,” Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said then. “We’ve got to find a solution.”

County Mayor Paulette Burdick said she wants to see that buy-out fee raised significantly or scrapped altogether.

“The ability to buy out should be up for conversation” during the upcoming housing summit, Burdick said.

In putting together development plans, builders frequently ask the county for permission to build more housing units on a piece of land than existing rules allow. The county often accedes to those wishes.

The county should not grant those requests while also allowing builders to pay a fee in lieu of including workforce housing units, Burdick said.

“Someone would have to convince me why a buyout option should be available if the county is allowing additional density,” she said.

A pre-summit analysis by the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County shows that there are other factors clouding the affordable housing picture.

One of those factors is available land. For all of the hand-wringing about “the Browardization of Palm Beach County,” Palm Beach County has few tracts of land east of Florida’s Turnpike, a desirable location for many who work in cities on the coast.

“Few large vacant parcels remain in the urban area of Palm Beach County, and increasing land prices reflect this limited availability,” the analysis states.

There are massive chunks of land west of the turnpike, but what parcels aren’t being farmed often are populated by people who aren’t eager to see them developed.

Development proposals in those areas are met with a storm of opposition from people who decry the loss of open space, traffic woes and a change in the area’s rural character.

Baker said she’s hoping the housing summit brings all sides to the table for a collective discussion about a problem that is having a range of impacts, from businesses and governments struggling to recruit out-of-area employees to recent college graduates living with their parents because they can’t afford a place of their own.

“It’s an area that everybody is interested in,” Baker said. “It is going to be important for us to engage. It is not a county issue. It is not a municipal issue. It is all of us.”

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