Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

A Place to Call Home

(Mark Wemple)

Along the edges of urban Florida are rooftops where there was once open land — some of it sprawling suburbs and others dense clusters of apartments reminiscent of the tall ant hills that once dotted pastureland. In my hometown of Tampa, downtown canyons of high-rise condos and apartments have sprouted from former parking lots.

Yet for all the building happening across Florida, it’s not enough to put a dent into the state’s housing crisis.

Data from the Federal Reserve on Florida’s housing building permits show the state has never recovered to its pre-Great Recession levels, even as the population surged. The Florida Apartment Association’s data show in the last decade, Florida built 950,000 new units of housing compared with 1.62 million in the 2000s and 1.26 million in the 1990s.

The shortage is hurting wide swaths of the population, but there’s one group squeezed out of Florida’s housing market that makes me particularly worried for the state’s future: first-time homeowners.

A life for young adults doing essential work (teachers, first responders and young professionals among them) in Florida used to come with a promise: Work hard, save some money and you could buy your first house. It might be a fixer-upper in the suburbs or maybe you had to be a little bit of an urban pioneer in a reemerging neighborhood, but homeownership was attainable. It helped that rents were affordable, so you could squirrel away a down payment, and interest rates were a bargain.

None of that exists today. There are significantly more all-cash buyers of Florida homes (upwards of one-third and approaching 50% in Florida’s larger cities) than there are first-time buyers (only about one-quarter of home sales), says the National Association of Realtors.

Florida demographers tell us what’s ahead: Deaths will outpace births as the population surge the state will experience comes from in-migration. Young families will be a smaller share of the population going forward. It’s not healthy, economically or socially, for Florida to be a place where young families can’t get their foot in the door of homeownership. And the thing about young people, especially those with marketable skills, is they’ll leave for places that can give them a path to the life they imagine for themselves. That’s how a lot of us, myself included, ended up in Florida to start.

Florida has been in this dilemma before when it used to lose its best and brightest to other states for college. Spurred on by the business community, the state built an excellent, affordable public higher education system for the college-bound and created paths of training and opportunity in the skilled trades. We see those systems thriving now. Consider the new Live Local Act — a transformative housing effort led by Senate President Kathleen Passidomo — an extension of that investment in the future.

With $711 million in the 2023-24 state budget, the law opens commercial and industrial land to affordable housing development and curtails the ability of local governments to deny needed projects. Local governments have bristled at the changes usurping their authority. It’s a valid argument for thoughtful communities who have worked to include workforce housing in their plans, but there are also too many communities where NIMBY forces are so intractable that land languishes rather than being used to meet an essential need of attainable housing. This is one problem where every community ought to be part of the solution.

Among its many provisions, the law opens the door for incentives for developers to produce affordable housing; land trusts (home buyers build equity in the house, but a non-profit entity retains ownership of the ground creating a perpetual supply of attainable housing); and the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, which brings local government to the table.

I was curious about how the Live Local Act was playing out on the ground, so I checked in with Sam Young, the president and CEO of Pensacola Habitat for Humanity. For the first time, the affiliate received state funding through the Live Local Act — $2.5 million to create a 30-parcel subdivision for working families and active-duty military. Pensacola is the first community land trust in Florida history to be funded by the Legislature, but it’s an idea that other communities are now looking to replicate. The houses Pensacola Habitat for Humanity builds are beautifully designed, energy-efficient and well-located; anyone would be proud to call them home. Young, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is about as results-oriented as they come, says this approach is a way forward that serves homeowners and communities in the long run.

Another key provision in the act that speaks directly to the generational disparities in home ownership is the Hometown Heroes program for first-time buyers. It’s aimed at retaining workers in a range of key professions who earn less than 150% of their county’s area median income. The maximum down payment assistance available to each homebuyer is $35,000 in the form of a zero-interest loan that’s repaid when the home is sold.

As long as Florida has a thriving economy, it’s going to be an expensive place to live. Consider the Live Local Act a welcome mat for all the talented, young people Florida desperately needs to keep moving forward.

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