ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County is in the middle of what some are calling an affordable housing crisis.
Rents and home prices have skyrocketed in recent years, pushing some people to homelessness.
As of this week, there are 351 homeless students in St. Johns County, according to the school district.
The Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County is one of the organizations on the front lines trying to assist those families in need by helping them find permanent housing. They bring families and veterans into one of their 23 homes with the hope they can eventually transition back into the community. The problem is finding an affordable place to live in St. Johns County is getting harder and harder.
By the end of this week, one of the coalition’s modest houses in West Augustine will be home to three new residents. A mother who works at a local fast-food restaurant along with her two children will settle down in the home after moving from the Betty Griffin Center, a center that helps victims of domestic violence.
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The home is located on a 5-acre campus filled with 19 other 100-year-old former rail worker cottages managed by the coalition.
“My goal is to be able to provide additional affordable housing for our homeless families so that we can help them get back on their feet and become self-reliant,” said executive director Debi Redding, who has worked with the coalition for 12 years.
All of the people in the homes have jobs and pay $800 a month in rent.
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Since COVID-19 hit, rental costs have soared in St. Johns County. Redding said that has made it difficult for families to transition from the homes on the campus back out into the greater community.
“Rents are rising at an exorbitant rate, a rate in which wages cannot keep up with. What used to be $800 a month is now $1,400 a month or $1,600 a month. The families that live at the Homeless Coalition, their average wage is $15 an hour. Two years ago that was pretty decent. Now it doesn’t even come close to being able to afford, especially if you’re looking at 30% of your income should go toward your housing fees,” Redding said.
According to Rent.com, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in St. Augustine is $1,675. That’s up 22% since last year.
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Redding said there need to be more resources to help these working families. That’s why she said she was devastated when last week the county commission decided against establishing a public housing authority that could have brought in millions of federal dollars for housing.
“I think us as a community that we all need to pull together and we need to support one another. And either the rents need to come down, or the wages need to go up, or we need to get some subsidies,” she said.
Redding, who relies on funding from the state and from donations, said it was a big help when the county increased the coalition’s funding from $84,000 to $99,000 this year, but she said much more needs to be done to address the housing crisis. Redding noted her own employees can’t even afford to live in St. Johns County.
The group said it is hoping to build more homes on its campus soon, enough to help 18 more families struggling with homelessness.
Redding said she also wants people to understand someone experiencing homelessness doesn’t always look the way you think they might.
“They look like you and me, really, they’re no different,” she said. “They’ve experienced a tragedy or crisis. Or they may have a mental health issue that has caused them to be in the situation they’re in. It is single individuals, it is families, it is elderly. We have a lot of seniors falling into homelessness right now. And there are no big solutions for them.”
According to the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors, St. Johns County continues to remain the least affordable area to live in the region.
“We still need to explore creative answers to affordable housing. A collaboration of the public and private sectors is necessary to address this issue,” former Northeast Florida Association of Realtors President Mark Rosener said.