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As Palm Beach County Faces Affordable Housing Shortage, Officials Work Toward Solutions

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic stripped jobs away and raised home prices by up to 25%, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard proposed a $150 million bond to address the affordable housing shortage in the county.

“Only 17% of the households can actually afford to buy a home in the county,” Bernard said.

People are having a hard time finding affordable rent and homeownership options. It’s an issue that isn’t going away any time soon and range of people are affected by it, from young workers to homeless single mothers with children — who stopped by Bernard's office seeking help.

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An unaffordable housing market impacts people beyond the workforce community.

"We used to think this is for just teachers and firefighters and police officers. This is for almost everyone that lives in Palm Beach County," Bernard said. "When you have an affordable housing crisis, what it creates is a lack of economic competitiveness and it also impacts quality of life.”

Bernard has teamed up with the Housing Leadership Council and other organizations to advocate for affordable housing incentives that combine state and federal resources. The details haven't been finalized but include a "micro-targeted housing plan" that could allocate $50 million to workforce housing, $50 million to affordable housing, and also an additional $50 million for low-income and homeless housing.”

“The Housing Leadership Council did a study. We have a 30,000 shortage in homeownership supply in the county. In regards to rental units; we’re 44,000 short in terms of supply,” he said. “So we're not keeping pace with creating homes with our population growth.”

For now, families, seniors, and workers remained cost-burdened because housing prices and rents have skyrocketed much faster than their incomes. Florida continues to rank high among the least affordable housing markets in the country.

Anne Ray is a researcher and manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse at the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

Ray says the county has a lot of low-wage jobs, which exacerbates the gap between wage and housing costs. There is barely any room for disposable income.

"The median home sale price in Palm Beach County hit $400,000 in the first half of 2020, the fourth highest in the state,” she said. “Rents in South Florida are higher than in other parts of the state but the median wage is still just over $18 an hour in South Florida, meaning half of jobs pay that amount or less. This means the affordable housing gap is that much larger in Palm Beach [County].”

From the bidding wars in the real estate market to supply and demand issues, Ray says sea level rise and climate change have a grave impact on affordable housing in Florida, affecting "housing supply, insurance costs, and construction methods."

"Half of Florida’s workers earn $17 an hour or less, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time worker would need to earn over $24 an hour to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in the state," she said.

Ray added that the state's eviction and foreclosure moratorium kept people in their homes last spring and summer, as Florida faced some of the worst economic effects of the pandemic, but that moratorium — and the moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has been less effective in preventing eviction filings.

Ray says rental assistance and homelessness prevention dollars from the federal government reached state and local communities — something she considers to be a silver lining amid the crisis.

"The more flexible aid that is coming to the state and local governments is a chance to think big and make permanent investments in the affordable housing supply," she said.

Commissioner Bernard also says permanent investments are key to helping families find and keep homes.

More than a year ago, and before the pandemic, Bernard presented his plans for a $150 million housing bond and says he received "positive feedback from the public and commission.”

“So we’re looking at fine tune it, meet with the Housing Leadership Council, present it to the commission, and let the public make that decision," he said.