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Palm Beach County's $200 million housing bond ballot question - what you need to know

Despite the challenges to finding affordable housing, blacks and Latinos still say they feel like home ownership is an excellent investment.
Jae C. Hong
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AP
Affordable housing is a challenge across South Florida

South Florida continues to rank high among the least affordable housing markets in the country.

In Palm Beach County, voters casting their ballots in the general election are being asked to approve a countywide tax increase to finance a new program aimed at addressing the county’s housing affordability and supply crisis.

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Few doubt the county needs more workforce housing units to meet the demand of middle-class workers, who are currently having a hard time finding a place to live. The low county housing shortage is also making it difficult for businesses to recruit and retain employees.

But there have been mixed responses to the 20-year, $200 million measure, which was placed on the November ballot by county commissioners in a 4-2 vote. Some question the numbers involved, while others worry about the impact of gentrification.

The measure was proposed by Commissioner Mack Bernard, a Democrat whose district includes Riviera Beach. He has been a staunch advocate for more affordable housing across the county since before the pandemic.

Mack Bernard.jpeg
Courtesy of Commissioner Mack Bernard
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Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard represents district 7

“This is a crisis we need to address,” said Bernard of the lack of affordable housing in Palm Beach County. “Our county workers, police officers, fire fighters and teachers cannot afford to live here.”

Commissioners say, if approved, a homeowner with a property that has a taxable value of $350,000 dollars would pay roughly $15 to $20 more a year.

In turn, their goal is to entice developers to build 20,000 units - for rent and for sale - in urban areas over the next decade, by allowing them to bid for low interest loans out of the $200 million pot.

This is a crisis we need to address. Our county workers, police officers, fire fighters and teachers cannot afford to live here.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard

Bernard said the properties built by developers would include below-market workforce housing units to help meet demand from middle-class workers.

Experts explain that this is different from affordable housing. That targets low income and extremely low-income people in various communities. This measure would be aimed at individuals or families earning between $54,000 and $126,000, with the county incentivizing developers to build new housing with a mix of market-rate and discounted units.

The ballot plan has been heavily supported by the influential business community, such as the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County.

In fact, business leaders have been the driving force in shaping what the plan could look like. Palm Beach County residents will have seen ads from the council promoting the plan across social media.

But homeowners and housing experts have expressed concerns and questions about how the plan would be executed. Ultimately, any future decisions, if the bond passes, would rest in the hands of county commissioners.

2018-06-14-Ken-Johnson-Stone-Initiatives-images-for-news-articles.jpeg
Florida Atlantic University
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Ken Johnson, real estate economist and Associate Dean at Florida Atlantic University's Finance Department

Commissioners will allocate the dollars

The housing bond won’t be a one-time source of funds. The money will be used in a gap funding program — a low-interest loan fund that replenishes once the loans are repaid by builders.

Developers wound build the rental or housing unit, sell to investors after a given period of time, and that money should return to the pool.

If the referendum is approved, the county commissioners would vote on how to allocate those dollars. And that’s where some of the confusion exists for tax paying homeowners and housing experts.

A team at the Florida Atlantic University’s Finance Department that conducted several local and national studies on Florida’s housing market — and followed this particular bond proposal closely — has raised some questions.

Ken Johnson, an Associate Dean at FAU, acknowledged the desperate need for immediate action for more housing supply in a county he says will experience an increase in population of more than 12% in the next decade. The county is seeing around 3,000 new units per year, when it needs more than double that, he said.

The best time to solve an affordable housing issues is at the bottom of a housing cycle, not at the peak.
FAU Associate Dean Ken Johnson

But he criticized Palm Beach County’s $200 million housing bond as very long on promise and very short on implementation details. Johnson said the housing plan on the ballot isn’t clearly outlined, especially in terms of annual operating cost and governmental oversight.

He believes the county is passing the buck to voters — and that the math doesn't seem to add up. Johnson pointed out that during the county's Workforce Housing Program, they have produced just 1,100 units in 16 years, with a $100 million budget. Commissioners say the new measure would be looking to build 18 times the number of units with just double that funding.

To him, that ongoing program also raises doubts about the commission's implementation of such projects. The Workforce Housing Program has been undercut by a caveat that allowed developers to pay a small fee to avoid building a certain amount of affordable housing.

Additionally, Johnson said there’s not enough geographical detail or a clear public understanding on where to distribute those future properties.

He described the housing bond as a "well-intentioned" plan but when the market is at the peak of a housing cycle, it’s the worst time for officials to try to solve affordability issues because “labor for construction is at its highest, materials for construction are at their highest, land prices are at the absolute height,” he said.

"The best time to solve an affordable housing issues is at the bottom of a housing cycle, not at the peak," Johnson added.

Impact on gentrification and rural areas

1 Lantana Road Branch Library Wilkine Brutus .jpg
Wikine Brutus
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Entrance to the voting precinct at the Lantana Road Branch Library in Lake Worth Beach.

County commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes low-income rural areas in the Glades, voted against the program. She believes it will target more urban areas, with greater density and close proximity to industries — and not her residents.

Meanwhile Jonathan Brown, the county’s director of housing and economic development, raised some early concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding alternative funding sources to supply housing units.

He is also worried about the long-term impact of gentrification or "displacement," as how developers refer to it.

Brown questioned what "affordability" looks like for low-income residents getting priced out as development increases the value of the revitalized neighborhood. He expressed support for the bond but stressed “when we talk about a plan, there is a lot more meat that needs to be put on the bone.”

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.