Mortgage foreclosures are up, and a working class is scarce

The once-dormant microwave oven at Cedar Bay Marina on Marco Island is now the hot spot in the employee lunch room.

Even though the marina-turned-private yacht club is surrounded by pizza joints and fast food restaurants, Cedar Bay employees are packing lunches.

"The problem is they just don't have the money," said Manager Scott Hopkins, pointing out that employees are facing higher rents, higher interest rates, increased property taxes and steeper insurance rates — all of which take a bite out of disposable income.

Scott Hopkins, general manager of the Cedar Bay Yacht Club on Marco Island, checks his property on a recent weekday. Hopkins and his family struggled to find an affordable place to buy before finally buying a condominium in Naples.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Daily News

Scott Hopkins, general manager of the Cedar Bay Yacht Club on Marco Island, checks his property on a recent weekday. Hopkins and his family struggled to find an affordable place to buy before finally buying a condominium in Naples.

While the real estate market has cooled and median home prices have dropped since the Daily News interviewed Hopkins last spring about Collier's affordable housing crisis, not much has changed in the trenches.

In Southwest Florida's service industry, businesses are short-staffed because they cannot pay employees enough to keep them from leaving.

"Employers are still stealing (workers) from each other," Hopkins said.

On top of that, retail stores and restaurants that cater to working people are seeing the number of customers drop off.

"We've run skeleton crews and had nights when we had only one server because no one is coming through the door," said Myles Bowman, co-owner of the Melting Pot on U.S. 41 North. "We think things are getting worse, not better."

Russ Weyer, of the statewide consulting firm Fishkind & Associates, predicts more and more problems related to the high cost of housing.

"It will slowly happen," he said. "I think service will suffer."

Despite the fact that real estate prices dropped in 2006, mortgage foreclosures were up nearly 300 percent in November in Collier compared with the same month last year, court records show.

People like Hopkins are struggling, even though he earns more than the area median income of $66,100 a year.

The three-bedroom townhouse Hopkins bought for $367,000 in November costs $9,000 a year in taxes, insurance, and mortgage insurance. By the time Hopkins pays the principal, interest and condo fees, he's spending nearly half his annual income on housing.

"How is that affordable?" he asks, anger rising in his voice.

The drop in real estate prices has helped some.

In 2005, fewer than a handful of single-family homes were selling for less than $300,000. Last week, the real estate Multiple Listing Service showed 305 single-family homes for less than $300,000. And nearly 1,000 condos were for sale for less than $250,000.

Meanwhile, politicians and major employers are scrambling to find ways to get more affordable housing units built.

The Florida Data Clearinghouse predicts that by 2025, Collier County will need another 102,700 work-force housing units.

Collier government officials recently set a new higher goal of wanting to see 1,000 affordable units built each year, surpassing the previous goal of 500 units, which the county rarely met.

Meanwhile, rental apartment owners are screaming for relief from rising property taxes and insurance rates, which are bankrupting them. The problem is especially tough on landlords who built apartments using tax subsidies, because the rents are locked in by the federal government.

"The insurance is out of control. It has doubled and tripled," said Henry Holzkamper, who owns about 300 apartments around Collier County that aren't subsidized.

Holzkamper has been forced to raise rents, in part because of property taxes.

"That's something Collier County does have control over," he said of tax rates.

Some apartments that Holzkamper paid $30,000 a unit for several years ago now are taxed at nearly five times that amount, forcing him to raise rents.

"As a landlord, I do not like to raise rents. Until recently, the rents were only $600 a month," he said.

Was there progress in 2006?

All is not doom and gloom on the housing front.

While the results may not have trickled down to the man on the street, state and local leaders have been collaborating on solutions all year.

Collier developers and their representatives say increased densities, deferred impact fees, reduced government regulations, expedited permitting and relaxed road standards for affordable housing developments are essential to get the free market to build more affordable housing.

During a Solutions 2007 forum earlier this month at Florida Gulf Coast University, the Economic Development Council of Collier County proposed those very incentives.

The development community shuns regulatory mandates, such as inclusionary zoning, which forces all new developments to include some affordable housing units. Collier County commissioners are expected to consider inclusionary zoning in 2007. And some time in the spring, commissioners are expected to vote on linkage fees, which are mandated one-time charges on new development to help subsidize affordable housing.

Weyer, of Fishkind & Associates, which represents developers and policymakers, has this to say about mandates:

"Regulatory enforcement just exacerbates the situation, making the developer charge more for market-rate housing. We really need to rely on density bonuses and increased densities, which our regulatory bodies find difficult to do because their constituencies don't want it."

Despite the stigma surrounding increased densities, or building more houses on each acre of property, Collier commissioners created a new bonus density formula this year that allows more units per acre if affordable or gap housing is included.

Housing costs drop when more units are built on an acre because the cost of the land is spread over more housing units.

This month, Collier commissioners approved the first development that took advantage of the new density incentive. Summit Lakes, near Collier Boulevard and Immokalee Road, will have 300 affordable and gap housing units.

By comparison, Fountain Lakes, the public-private partnership between the school district, hospitals, city of Naples, Sheriff's Office, and MDG Capital, would have 120 affordable units if the group lands a $5 million state grant.

A law sponsored in the spring by Rep. Mike Davis, R-Naples, set aside $50 million for 10 high-cost, high-growth counties such as Collier that create public-private partnerships to come up with innovative solutions to address the affordable housing shortage. Davis intends to renew the pilot program during the 2007 legislative session.

Brian Settle, vice president of human resources for NCH Healthcare System, said one of the best things that happened in 2006 was Davis' law that spurred collaboration between public and private employers.

"The key initiative for this entire county is the successful Essential Service Personnel partnership," Settle said. "We finally have some large employers working together ... to crack the nut on housing."

Are incentives enough?

Can the free market and incentives alone crack the housing nut?

Some, including Settle, say "no."

"I think that if you look around the country — Aspen (Colorado), the Hamptons (New York), the West Coast and other areas — they found out years ago, you can't just let the market do its magic," he said. "You have to go in and help with housing infrastructure for the working class."

And there begs the question. In a community such as Collier County, where the cost of living and housing prices are the highest in the state, should affordable housing be considered infrastructure? Is it as important as roads, libraries, parks and schools? Does a community like Collier need to look at things differently?

Martina Guilfoil, of the Community Housing Trust of Sarasota, thinks so. She espouses land trusts as a way to ensure that affordable housing being subsidized today remains affordable tomorrow.

For instance, in the case of the 16 affordable units the developer of Bristol Pines in East Naples built, the land trust would own the land beneath the units. That way, when the homeowner sells, there's no chance the unit, which is built next to market-rate units, jumps up to market rate.

"Land trusts don't preclude the need for upfront subsidies," Guilfoil said. "They are not less expensive as a development tool. But a land trust takes the subsidy and preserves it in perpetuity."

Critics say that land-trust buyers don't get to build the wealth they would through a conventional purchase. Guilfoil answers that land trusts offer home ownership to people who otherwise would be forced to always rent.

"The land trust opens up a new solution," she said. "They are better off than renters."

When they sell, they get all of the mortgage principal they've paid off, plus the downpayment and 25 percent of any appreciation. They also get the tax benefits and a fixed housing cost."

The Sarasota land trust has 5,000 land trust housing units currently in the pipeline, she said.

Collier currently has no land trust.

More help from the state?

Davis is expected to play a key role in affordable housing legislation during the 2007 session. He expects a number of proposals to surface.

One is a measure that would tell property appraisers to base rental apartment property assessments on the income generated, not on the amount that the property could sell for.

Davis also wants to increase funding of affordable housing subsidies and to create a law that would allow creation of community redevelopment areas — where the increase in taxes generated goes back into affordable housing.

It's going to take a variety of solutions, Davis said.

"The whole affordable housing discussion is a matter of incremental fixes," he said. "There is no one thing that will do it."

Consultant Weyer is adamant that the community must be educated about the need for increased densities.

"There needs to be a real educational process on increased density and what it looks like. There's a lot of good things happening with increased density," he said.

Weyer said many Floridians are used to high densities because they came from big cities:

"This community has to change its mindset toward density or we will always be in this crisis."

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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