How St. Johns nonprofits are looking to bring solutions to a continuous problem — affordable housing

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ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Help wanted signs or closed signs are not hard to find in St. Augustine, Fla. The reason why can be traced back to something that is hard to find – affordable housing.

“What you’re hearing from people who move here is I have to wait too long for food, or I have to wait in line for service, or there wasn’t someone at the counter when I got there,” Bill Lazar said, the Executive Director of the Saint Johns Housing partnership. “I think all of that is a function of people can’t find places to live close enough to where they work.”

One in four Americans are considered “house poor”. That means they’re spending too much of their monthly income on a place to live.

If you’re spending more than 30% of your income on housing, you’re considered “house poor” too.

In Jacksonville, which is just 30 miles North of St. Augustine, the median household income is $70,533. If that’s your annual salary, that means you ideally shouldn’t be spending more than $1,750 monthly on housing costs.

For a bigger look at the problem and the possible solutions to the affordable housing shortage, we talked with Anne Ray from the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida. She’s been researching affordable housing and documenting affordable housing needs and supply in the state of Florida for 20 years now.

“If somebody has become established and lived in the state a long time, they would, I think, be really surprised to try and go out on the market now and rent an apartment or buy a home,” Ray said. “It’s become much more expensive.”

Ray’s research has found that Florida has a severe affordable housing deficit. For every 100 households whose income is less than 30 percent of the area’s median income, there are only 26 affordable and available rental units.

“So many households, especially lower income households, are paying more for that than that for their housing. It can have some really negative effects,” Ray said. “There’s really a couple things that we need to do to address the housing problem. And it’s a long, slow process, but it works.”

The first step to address the problem Ray said is to increase the supply of affordable housing, particularly housing for people working at service jobs, or in leisure, accommodation, tourism, and lower-paid healthcare jobs. The next step is to ensure that households who might be struggling with their housing costs have support so they can stay in their homes.

A lack of affordable housing in St. Johns County is affecting people like Kaia Wright. She spends most of her afternoons taking orders at the Kookaburra Café in Downtown St. Augustine. As a barista, she relies heavily on tips to be able to afford her rent which is not always enough.

“It’s kind of like, what is your check going to be every month? Because you don’t know. It depends on how many tourists come in. It’s not like I know that I’m able to make this much. So, I can pay this much a month per rent,” Wright explained.

Wright said it was next to impossible to find a place to live on her own that she could afford in the historic city. So, she’s living with 3 roommates.

“I love St. Augustine and I’ve kind of like built my community here. So, I would love to live here after [college],” Wright said. “Looking at like houses, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford one by myself really. Like you’d have to have either be married and have that dual income or have roommates till you have a good enough job to pay for yourself.”

While a lack of affordable housing is not a unique problem to any one Florida community in St. Johns County, the problem is especially prevalent.

Homes sold at a median price of $600,000 in April of this year. Market data shows they sold at a median sales price of $495,000 in February.

As for the rental market, only 3% of available rental units are priced between $1,000 and-1,500 according to the St. Johns County Chamber. The average teacher would need to earn more than three times their current wage to afford a home at the current median sale price.

It’s a big reason why the Saint Johns Housing Partnership (SJHP) is trying to increase the area’s affordable housing stock.

Bill Lazar is the executive director of the housing partnership. We toured three different properties in the county that were either complete or under construction thanks to SJHP, offering locals more affordable housing options.

“We have a program where we both build homes for sale for first-time home buyers, and we’re slowly building some additional rental property, which seems to be at a premium these days in Saint Augustine in particular,” Lazar said.

Right now, the SJHP is building four three-bedroom, one-bath apartments that will be rented for $1,800 monthly. Lazar said the price is a little higher than they anticipated despite the efforts to build the homes affordably. The demand is still extremely high for rentals priced under $2,000 monthly.

“If we just literally advertised it on the open market, as we have a rental, for somebody who is income qualified, we’ll get no less than 50 calls in a day,” Lazar said.

The SJHP is slowly acquiring more property to build single-family homes and rentals in the county. They’ve helped everyone from single mothers to veterans find a place they can comfortably afford.

While the work that’s being done across the state to build more affordable housing options is commendable, it’s not enough to meet the demand. Shannon Nazworth, the President and CEO of Ability Housing said more work needs to be done.

Ability Housing is another non-profit working to solve the affordable housing crisis. With 11 income-capped properties in Duval, Orange, and Osceola Counties, they’ve helped hundreds of families find a reasonably priced, safe place to live.

“Across Jacksonville, across northeast Florida, we have people with full-time jobs that are essential jobs. We need them in our communities,” Nazworth said. “They might be working for the sheriff’s office or the school district or the hospital, and they’re the support staff. We need those professions to make our community function and they can’t afford to live here.”

The non-profit has four more properties that are still in development including in St. Johns.

“The need is great, but it’s also something we can tackle. I want to remind people that we didn’t always have an affordable housing crisis,” Nazworth said. “There was a time in our society when we didn’t have systemic homelessness. the reason we have so many people who are challenged with housing instability, and the reason why we have an affordable housing crisis is we stopped investing in affordable housing.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Government programs offering down payment assistance and funding to build more affordable housing will help.

Florida is doing this with the Live Local Act.

Offering builders or developers density bonus incentives or dedicating homes as workforce housing is another tool counties can use to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

Palm Beach County and the city of St. Petersburg are already implementing similar incentives for builders in their community. St. Johns County is also trying to build dedicated workforce housing, but a proposal to build nearly 300 affordable homes was recently shot down over traffic concerns.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists across the state for affordable housing. Nazworth, Lazar, and Ray can all agree that this is a problem that won’t be solved overnight.