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Where are we going to live?



By Cindy Banyai, Ph.D.


The cost of houses and rent across Southwest Florida and US have been skyrocketing recently. The real estate boom is convincing many landlords that now is the time to sell, leaving renters out of luck and often without a place to go. Here we will look at the growing housing crisis in Southwest Florida and what it means for our community.


Facts about this hot housing market


Housing prices surging across the country. 32% of people looking to move to more affordable housing locations, including Florida, driving up local prices. Lee County is in the top 10 nationwide for population growth. Incomers are purchasing and renting at higher rates, pushing out locals. Rents are up 13.1% in the Fort Myers area as of early 2023. Housing prices in Lee County went up 24% in 2022 and stayed high through 2023. An FGCU study determined Fort Myers ranked second in the country for overvalued housing.


The average for a 3-bedroom rental in Lee County is now around $2700 a month. According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income in Lee County is $59,608. This means the median monthly income is about $4,967. Spending under 25% of your income on housing is considered sustainable. So for the typical household in Lee County that would be $1,242. The average rents are more than double the sustainability level. If a family of 4 is paying $2700 in rent, $880 in groceries, $600 in gas that leaves only $787 for everything else including clothes, cleaning products, health insurance, etc. It’s not enough. We know this is a crisis for families and we expect our leaders to do something about it.


SWFL has had an affordable housing crisis looming. Houses were cheap after the 2009 crash but as prices rose and pay stagnated working-class people were priced out of homes. Many people got caught in the crash and lost their homes after defaulting on their mortgage. Some went on to become long-term renters, stressing the affordable housing market.


Things were further exacerbated by Hurricane Ian in September 2022. FEMA real property damage estimates indicate that there are approximately 18,473 (79.87%) owner-occupied units and 4,655 (20.13%) renter-occupied units that suffered major-high or severe damage. Insurance data indicates that there are an estimated 49.08% of homeowners without insurance. This stressed the already tight rental market and ultimately contributed to a 40% increase in homelessness in Lee County.


SWFL has been a bedroom community. This means people live in one area, often a cheaper residential area, and work in another, the municipal hubs or tourist destinations. Downtowns and water access areas were revitalized and often gentrified. The priority for development in Fort Myers and Lee County has been on luxury properties. Land use and zoning restrictions have curtailed the ability of developers to create new affordable housing. There are also little to no incentives for them to do so. If you could make a handsome profit selling luxury, why would a profit-driven company do anything else?


Working-class people moved further out to Cape Coral and Lehigh to find affordable homes and rentals. This has created the traffic nightmare that we know today. These are expensive commutes with gas prices surging as well, families are finding it difficult to even afford to get to work.


The largest industry in SWFL is retail and hospitality. They have notoriously low wages. The locations of these jobs are in the cities of Fort Myers and Naples and out on the beaches. The housing crisis is adding to an existing labor shortage in these establishments. It won’t be long before no one can afford to work in retail and hospitality. How attractive for tourists and retirees will Southwest Florida be then?


What can we do?


There are resources if you need immediate assistance. Lee County has programs to help people stay in their homes or find new places like Homeowner Housing Development, Homeowner Housing Rehabilitation, Rental Housing Rehabilitation, Rental Housing Development, and Down Payment Assistance. Unfortunately, due to fiscal conservative measures, their officers are often understaffed and actually successfully completing the required paperwork to access these programs is a challenge. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity are working to build affordable housing for those in their program, but this is not an immediate fix.


We need affordable housing policies and incentives. Southwest Florida leaders have known about the affordability crisis in housing for more than a decade with only feeble attempts to address it. Leaders have prioritized developer profits over affordable housing for families and our workforce. Most elected to the Lee County Commission have deep ties to luxury developers, so there is no political will to act on the housing crisis.


This sad fact is also being played out in the process of deciding where over $1 billion in hurricane recovery funds will go. The task force to allocate the funds is populated with the White, Republican officials elected to the county’s unfairly at-large elected commission. They subsequently placed their friends, specifically developers, on the working groups advising the process. 70% of the funds are meant to be spent on low and middle-income communities, however, those conducting the input meetings initially omitted a community meeting in the predominately Black and low-income community in Dunbar. The questions they then posed to the community, indicated that the desired direction of the task force was to build upscale housing around Southwest Florida. This will inevitably price low and middle-income people out of the area – gentrification.


The Lee County recovery plan is available at www.leegov.com/recovery/cdbg-dr for review and comment from now through Aug. 31. Comments can be sent to recovery@leegov.com, mailed to the Lee County Administration in care of the Office of Strategic Resources, 2115 Second St., Fort Myers, FL 33901, or provided at one of the public meetings.


Collier County has worked to develop what they call workforce housing, focusing on affordability for police, teachers, and health care staff – but the initiative is limited. There was also a recent ordinance to curtail rising rents that failed. It included a mandatory 60-day notice if rent was to raise more than 5%. Another attempt to revamp that ordinance is underway.


Leaders could also make multi-unit zoning easier and remove restrictive height limits where appropriate. Leaders could also create and fund initiatives to subsidize affordable housing – like a housing trust and Incentivize mixed-income residences. Unfortunately, there are many NIMBY-types with loud voices directly to the ears of local leaders. Let’s be frank about what this NIMBYism really is – wealthy, mostly white people who don’t want to live by poor people, immigrants, families, and people of color. Sadly, the decisions local leaders make feed into the luxury of NIMBYs because they are afraid of their dollars leaving Southwest Florida.


If only the ethics of our leaders were as thick as their pocketbooks. There is no quick fix to this issue and we will see people leaving the area, becoming homeless, and further disruptions in our workforce. For now, we must weather this storm, relying on our friends and neighbors and the generosity of some to get by. But also, don’t forget to vote for people who are ready to work for you and put you first, not the NIMBY’s or their pocketbooks.


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1 Comment


Nick
Nick
Aug 24, 2023

So true! But one thing not mentioned is the fact that you must earn 3x rent in order to qualify for an apartment. I made $60k and did‘t qualify in Naples for a 1 bedroom. So I packed up and moved north. 1 less person in hospitality to serve the rich. Once Starbucks has to close their doors and Macys doesn’t have someone to scramble behind the counter to satisfy the over-perfumed wealthy white woman, they’ll realize the error they made. And they’ll deserve it.

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