$200 million: How Palm Beach County’s affordable housing plans are starting to take shape

The Rev. Gerald Kisner knows how the housing crisis is placing big hardships on families. He recalls how a 47-year-old worker, unable to afford rent with two jobs, moved back in with his family.

There’s the story of the three families living together in a three-bedroom apartment. And there’s a senior citizen, Kisner recalls, who had to choose between paying rent or buying medicine.

“What do these people all have in common?” Kisner, of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, asked Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday. “They’re working here in Palm Beach County, and they still can’t afford an affordable place to live. These people are sustaining our economy. They’re teaching our children. They’re serving our food. They’re stocking our grocery shelves. Yet they cannot live in the community they are serving each and every single day.”

Concerns about the housing crisis came to the forefront of Tuesday’s meeting, where Palm Beach County considered ways to offer help. One of the plans being considered is an by  initiative to increase affordable and workforce housing options called the “Housing For All” plan prepared and presented by the county’s Housing Leadership Council during Tuesday’s meeting.

The commissioners expressed support for the plan, which would, among other goals, bring 20,000 affordable or workforce housing units to the county by 2032. This could be achieved through the county’s $200 million bond funds intended for affordable housing, as well as encouraging other cities in the county to provide funding from their local governments.

Housing For All would also aim to revitalize “historically disinvested neighborhoods” and promote racial equity.

In November, voters approved a $200 million bond item dedicated for affordable housing, and commissioners on Tuesday approved a process for how that bond will be allocated. But they said they needed more time before taking any action on a housing plan.

“I think we do support the plan, but approving and adopting it means it is our plan, and we are expected to implement and follow that plan,” County Attorney Denise Coffman said. “So if we’re doing something contrary to that plan, we need to be explaining why we’re doing it contrary, or we need to be amending the plan.”

Commissioner Mack Bernard echoed this sentiment, and he said he believes the commission needs to craft a way to create future flexibility for change.

None of the commissioners questioned the concept behind the plan. Rather, they felt they needed more time to discuss.

The Housing Leadership Council’s plan would involve reaching out to the county’s 39 municipalities.

“We do encourage municipalities to adopt this as well,” Michele Jacobs, the president and CEO for the county’s Economic Council, said during public comment. “But you are the leaders, and you’re the ones who set the trend for the 39 municipalities, so we implore you to adopt and to approve this, and then if we have to come back and make minor adjustments, we’re willing to do it.”

Some of Housing Leadership Council’s plan also involves participation from entities like the school district and property appraiser, which do not fall under the county commission’s purview, county Housing and Economic Development Director Jonathan Brown said.

“We need to pass a housing plan,” Commissioner Bernard said. “I think that staff should work with the Housing Leadership Council to streamline something that both staff and the Housing Leadership Council can agree on.”

Housing across the state has become increasingly more expensive as a product of supply and demand, said Scott Hawkins, a member of the executive committee of the county’s economic council and vice chair of Jones Foster, a West Palm Beach law firm.

“Housing is a scarce resource, demand for housing is going up, that drives prices up,” Hawkins said. “Inherent within that, however, is when you have a growing population, as we’ve had in the state, and it’s accentuated in the tri-county area, and I think it’s really accentuated in Palm Beach County being so desirable as a destination that the demand for housing has probably been disproportionately increased.”

And according to recent research, renters across all South Florida markets pay hundreds of dollars more than the average rent.

The item the commissioners did pass involves a bidding process for interested developers to submit proposals to the county.

Hypothetically, if a developer submits a plan to the county for an apartment complex where half the residential units are luxury and the other half are affordable or workforce housing units and the project receives approval, the county would pay for the construction of the affordable units while the developer would be responsible for the construction of the luxury units.

Projects may include condominiums, multi-family rental units, single-family homes, townhomes and mixed-income and mixed-use projects.

Funding criteria for rental projects would consider, among other factors, very low-income targeting, green building, readiness to proceed, quality, financial viability and rental affordability.

“I know we didn’t approve the housing plan, but we did something historic today by passing the bond allocation process unanimously,” Commissioner Bernard said.