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We need a housing leader

Politicians and government won’t solve the affordable housing shortage. It will take a champion, or champions.

  • Sarasota
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At last week’s Sarasota Chamber of Commerce summit on affordable housing, business owners, public policy makers and not-for-profit foundation executives heard yet again — yet again! — the dire facts about the unaffordable cost of housing for the working class.

As summits often go, it ended with yet another call to action — and with hope. Kirsten Russell, vice president of community impact of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, closed the summit saying: “… [H]opefully, there’s a passion point for you within this. What we’re hoping today is that you take this information and do something with it, because we can talk a lot but we need action.”

To be fair, the Sarasota City Commission has been taking action, creating incentives that would give developers increased densities in downtown projects in exchange for a percentage of affordable units. 

The Legislature and governor in the last session adopted the Live Local Act, which allocates $700 million to subsidize developers who build affordable housing; provides loans; and mandates local governments to allow multifamily rentals on any site zoned mixed-use, commercial or industrial in exchange for 40% of the units to meet an affordability threshold.

It’s too soon to say whether any of those measures will make a dramatic difference. Let’s hope they do — even if we all know, as the saying goes, “hope is not a strategy.”

Here’s another saying that is apropos: People don’t change until there is too much pain.

Well, the pain is pretty high. As we’ve said on this page enough times to fill barrels of ink, Florida housing is no longer affordable. And the summit reinforced that yet again with data. To wit:

Of more than 500 respondents to a survey of members of the chamber’s Young Professionals Group (all under age 40), 96% said housing is negatively affecting the economy; 70% said they are considering leaving Sarasota because of the cost of housing. Twenty percent are commuting more than 40 miles a day because they cannot afford to live locally.

Jon Thaxton, senior vice president at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, told summiteers: “The reality is it’s financially impossible to build housing affordable to people making under 100% AMI (area median income) in Sarasota County.” In fact, he said after factoring in the costs of land, labor, construction, materials, permitting and everything else, housing is unaffordable in Sarasota County for more than 40% of the households; or, 60,000 households are spending more than the benchmark peak of 30% of their income on housing.

The adverse effects of these facts are touching everyone in Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

Every employer will tell you hiring qualified people is the most acute pain point. In a chamber survey of employees, more than 1,500 respondents “came from people who actually turned down jobs in our area because of the lack of affordable housing.” 

All employers are struggling to retain employees, and employee morale and productivity are declining because wages are not keeping up with the cost of living.

All this translates to a lower level of service wherever we go, whatever we do, because of a shortage of labor. It means higher prices for everything because employers must pay more to attract and keep employees and pass those costs onto consumers. It means a disappearing middle class and a two-tier community of rich and poor. It means our children and grandchildren will leave to find opportunity elsewhere. It means more development will be pushed farther east, where land costs are less. Which means more cars on the roads to accommodate commuting employees. Interstate 75 already comes to a standstill during rush hours. 

What’s the solution? There are no solutions, only tradeoffs. 

Here is the choice: More supply to meet demand and alleviate the pain? Or more of the same: Residents and local governments restricting, blocking and rejecting housing styles they don’t like?

This is for sure: More government housing trust funds, subsidies and intervention will never really solve the problem. Nor are those methods morally right — taking from one to convey an unearned benefit on another. 

If lowering or capping the cost of housing is the objective, here is what it will take: 1) A champion, or champions, to lead the cause; 2) A champion, or champions to build coalitions of residents and employers; and 3) The resolve to solve the problem. Who will step up?

One more saying: The only reason something is not accomplished is because it wasn’t made a priority. 



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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