ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County leaders are trying to address the area’s affordable housing crisis.
Commissioners are talking about making big changes to the county’s building code in an effort to get more essential workers into a home they can afford.
But the changes could come at a cost to buyers.
Some commissioners want to raise the maximum price of workforce housing and reduce the number of units that developers are required. Developers say doing this will help them build more homes people can afford. But others say increasing prices goes against the overall goal of providing a home to people like teachers and hospital workers.
Some of the biggest employers in St. Johns County, like Northrop Grumman and Flagler Health, say they are struggling to find workers and it’s all because of the lack of affordable housing.
The Sheriff’s Office isn’t immune either, according to Lieutenant Nicole Burrell.
“Despite all of their hard work, we cannot keep up with the cost of living in St. Johns County, primarily due to the inflation of land values and housing prices,” Burrell said.
The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce says employers are about 3,500 homes short of where they need to be.
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Home builders say one reason is that the county’s workforce housing laws are too strict.
Right now, with any approved workforce housing development, 40% of the units must be workforce housing units sold for no more than $240,000. The rest can be sold at the market rate.
Last year, the commission approved an example of a workforce housing project in the West Augustine neighborhood. That project, when it was approved, was set to include at least 40 townhomes that could be sold for no more than $240,000 with the goal of reaching families making around $70,000 a year.
“The pilot project has been very successful, in my opinion, because in the last two years, we’ve done four major projects that fall into this category,” Commissioner Henry Dean said last year.
Now developers say they can’t make enough money with those restrictions because of the current high cost of construction. So they want to increase the maximum cost for workforce housing to $260,000 and reduce the percentage of houses they must build to 30%.
“We need the $260,000, we need the 30%, to continue to bring units forward or this will die on the vine and no one will be served,” said Beth Breeding, Vice President of the Silverfield Development Company.
The commission was divided on the topic, with some saying they had an issue with raising the cost of workforce housing. But part of the proposed changes passed with a 3-2 vote.
“This is subsidy. It’s not fair to the police officers to raise the price, it’s not fair to the medical technicians. I’m sorry. I can’t believe this is even on the agenda,” said Commissioner Krista Joseph.
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“The problem is, what we are trying to find, I am anyway, is a sweet spot,” said Dean, who voted in favor of the changes. “The sweet spot being, what is low enough that we can make a dent in affordable housing, but also a number that the development community can break even or make a small profit.”
None of the changes proposed will go into effect just yet. The issue will come up at another meeting and will need to be approved again by the commission before it takes effect.
That’s when developers can move forward with the workforce housing projects already in the works.