Local faith-based organization wants Brevard County to address affordable housing crisis

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Space Coast religious and nonprofit leaders met at Suntree United Methodist Church this week to try to get County Commissioners to act on the affordable housing crisis. But the commissioners — and even their staff — were no shows. 

The Brevard Justice Ministry is a coalition of churches targeting housing insecurity as a key issue impacting people of all backgrounds on the Space Coast.

Their idea was to bring community members and county commissioners together to discuss the problem. Although some members of the group had met with commissioners individually, the leaders wanted the commissioners to hear from those most affected by soaring rents and home prices and the lack of alternatives. 

Dozens of community members and non profit leaders filled the pews of Suntree United Methodist Church on Monday night, waiting for the officials or their representatives who never showed.

District 4 Commissioner Curt Smith said he had a prior appointment; District 5 Commissioner Kristine Zonka said she had work; Rita Pritchett of District 1 said she didn’t get an invite to the meeting; and District 3 Commissioner John Tobia said he had to be somewhere else. 

The Brevard Justice Ministry also reached out to the commissioners to schedule one on one meetings with them to talk about the housing crisis.

Don Walker, Brevard County communications director, told FLORIDA TODAY that Florida Sunshine laws state, “Members of a public board are not prohibited under the Sunshine law from meeting together socially, provided that matters which may come before the board are not discussed at such gatherings.”

However according to  Reverend Allee Willcox, associate pastor at Suntree United Methodist Church, the commissioners “never raised this concern in any of our conversations with them leading up to the action.”

Tobia said he met with the group on two occasions. Smith said he referred the group to Ian Golden, Brevard County’s Director of the Department of Housing and Human Services, for further information. Zonka and Pritchett have one-on-one meetings planned in the coming weeks. 

The absence of the four commissioners was notable and many were disappointed.US Congressional District 8 candidate Danielle Dodge said the commissioners’ absence was “absolutely shameful.” Dodge said it was clear from their absence that affordable housing was not a priority issue for them. 

Bishop Merton Clark, Co-President of Brevard Justice Ministry, Inc and Pastor of Truth Revealed International Ministries emphasized why it was important for the commissioners to be there.

“They have the ability and the power of the purse. They have the ability to make a decision to create the funding or to at least redirect the funding toward the problem in our county,” Clark said.

Though the county is building affordable housing and has units ready using state and federal funds, the Brevard County Ministry Justice said that current inventory isn’t nearly enough to accommodate the growing need. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that half of workers in Brevard County make less than $46,000 a year and with rising rent prices, many are having to pay half their income on rent. Though financial experts recommend that households spend no more than 30% of income on rent, that is not possible for many in today’s rental market.

Tara Pagliarini, Executive Director of Family Promise of Brevard, Inc, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end family homelessness in Brevard County told the Monday gathering that housing referrals by her group have increased by 100% and 85% of the calls they received came from families who had an income but could no longer afford their home because of rent hikes.

According to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, there are 1,743 total available rental assistance units on the Space Coast and a deficit of 24,786 units needed for those who make between 0-60% of the average median income. For those who make 80-120% of the average median income, there is a surplus of 12,118 units available across the county.

Shimberg Center data also shows that for the 15,128 administrative and waste service workers who make an average of $22.53 an hour, the maximum affordable rent for them is $1,126 per month. For accommodation and food service workers, who make an average of $10.08 per hour, the maximum affordable rent is $504 per month. Pre-school teachers and childcare workers would need to spend over half of their take home pay on housing. Dishwashers would need to spend over 60% of their take home pay to afford rent each month.

The Brevard Ministry Justice believes that affordable housing needs to be a top priority for commissioners. The group proposes creating a local trust fund, using available land  and  federal funds from programs like the American Rescue Plan to address the problem.

Though Brevard County currently has an affordable housing trust fund that was created more than a decade ago, there isn’t much money in the trust, according to the county’s housing director Golden. Additionally, Golden said the trust is not tied to a tax. 

What the Brevard Justice Ministry is proposing is not unique. In Pinellas County, through a program called Penny for Pinellas 2,400 affordable housing units will be created and are projected to help about 7,000 families. 

“That local fund can do that exponential work to provide more opportunity for us to build affordable housing for our neighbors,” Willcox said.

“The county commission could make a real difference. They have an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in the pockets and in the livelihoods of the people that make Brevard the place that it is and the wonderful place that it is to live.”

Amira Sweilem is the data reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Sweilem at 386-406-5648 or asweilem@floridatoday.com

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