St. Johns County has an affordable housing crisis. These nonprofit housing leaders explain how to address it

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Tucked behind a massive oak tree in West Augustine is a new affordable housing project by the St. Johns Housing Partnership.

“This building we’ve got right here is for low-income veterans that we’re building,” said Bill Lazar, Executive Director of the nonprofit St. Johns Housing Partnership.

The Patriot Place apartments are made up of six, one-bedroom units that will rent for $1,000 a month in a county where finding a place to rent for even $1,500 is not easy.

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According to a recent report from the St. Augustine Record, rents in St. Augustine have increased 14-23% over the past year, depending on the number of bedrooms, and the average rent for a one-bedroom is $1,600. The average is $1,850 for a two-bedroom.

Lazar said one of the biggest challenges in creating more affordable housing is building infrastructures like sewer lines and roads and the high cost of that undertaking. There are also challenges in getting financing and grants to make it happen.

“So the biggest thing we continue to do is look for land that we can build something on quickly,” he said.

About a mile away from Patriot Place, the nonprofit is building a group of single-family homes that will be sold based on the homebuyers’ income for between $230,000-$260,000, significantly below the median cost of a home in the county which, as of this month is $555,000, according to the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors (NEFAR).

Homes built by St. Johns Housing Partnership in West Augustine. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Data collected by NEFAR shows that St. Johns County is the least affordable county of the eight counties in the area. Experts say that makes it difficult for many workers there to find a place to live. And it’s becoming harder and harder as deep-pocketed investors and new Florida residents flock to a county known for its top school district and beautiful beaches.

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“The new homes that we’re building and the new rentals we’re building are designed to try and stabilize our existing workforce. They’re just being completely priced out by rental investors and folks moving here who have more money than common sense, as far as I can tell,” Lazar said.

Shannon Nazworth is the CEO of Jacksonville affordable housing nonprofit Ability Housing. She appeared on This Week in Jacksonville and said that leaves people like teachers, deputies and government workers with few options.

“It’s a problem in St. Johns, it’s a problem in Duval. The city of St. Augustine is really concerned about their employees, the people working for the city. They’re all starting to live in Putnam County. That’s not sustainable. They need employees closer to where they work,” Nazworth said.

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Part of the issue, Nazworth said, is that wages are not keeping up with skyrocketing housing prices. Both nonprofit leaders say the local, state and federal governments need to do more to address the issue.

“We need to appropriate more to affordable housing, especially affordable rental housing, it is the greatest need,” Nazworth said. “The easiest thing [the community can do to help] is if they have land that might be suitable for housing, to try and find an organization to work with to turn that into housing, especially in the faith community. Maybe they were going to open a school or open a second church or something like that, and that just didn’t come to fruition. Talk to us talk to someone else. Maybe we can buy that from them and turn it into affordable housing. Finding land is among the hardest things. But other things that people can do is invest in housing, invest in affordable housing, hold our elected officials accountable, tell them this is important, and notice if they don’t invest in it. Those are all the things we as citizens in this community are responsible for.”

RELATED: St. Johns County approves workforce housing development where townhomes capped at $240,000

Nazworth said she would like to see the federal government add affordable housing into the budget and increase expenditures both for the tax credits as well as the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.

Lazar said one way to help is to call him if they are thinking of selling their home.

“We’ll give you a fair market rate for it, but give us a chance to buy it before the rental investors do because what we’re doing is building for people that either live here or already work here,” Lazar said.

For more information about St. Johns Housing Partnership and how its programs work, visit its website.

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