When will Lee County get woke to Workforce Housing?

If you have a child in the Lee County School District, have you paid attention to the chatter about the inability to keep younger teachers around? If you are married to a cop or firefighter who is fresh out of the academy, do you think the salary they earn provides you with a quality lifestyle? What about admin workers? This group is the backbone to our society and recent studies have shown that the turnover rate for these professions is downright horrifying. What about healthcare? True that most of these employees receive benefits but ask them what happens to the insurance rates once they start adding family members.

Stop me if you've heard this from me before. The truth is, Lee County is having a very challenging time keeping these great people on payroll. In 2016, the School District engaged in an internal report called the Blackbelt 2020 in an effort to look into the cause of record breaking teacher turnover. To make a long story short, I believe similar studies from every other public entity in Lee County would show the same results, that young professionals are fleeing the area because they cannot afford a quality lifestyle. Myrtle Beach is experiencing heavy demand for teaching positions that have the same starting salary as Lee County. So what's the problem? The problem is housing. Most new teachers start by renting. For the same price you can rent a 2 bedroom apartment in Lee County will get you a newer 3 bedroom 2 bath single family home with a 2-car garage, nice yard space and within minutes of commercial nodes.

Unincorporated Lee County has seen their share of housing developer proposals to build "Attainable" or "Workforce" housing. In fact, on March 7, 2017 it was my group who made a pitch to the School District to partner in an effort to build a housing development for teachers on land that the school district already owned but considered "not condusive" to their future school prototypes. The School Board of Directors voted a unanimous 5-0 to proceed with my proposal. The following day the News-Press ran a very incomplete and misleading story related to the ownership of the future project, leading constituents to interpret the deal as "taxpayer funded" which it was not. The News-Press Facebook page blew up with angry comments the following day and a couple of weeks later, I received notice that the project was cancelled. The CFO called me to tell me Superintendent Adkins killed the deal. Calls to people I respect in this community who I thought could guide me including Commissioners and leaders of public entities had a shoulder shrug reaction. I could not believe how this issue was being swept under the rug by the same people who promote strong economies.

I am a capitalist, opportunist and a businessman. But for those that know me best know that my passion is aligned with the well-being of my community. Today, my company is on the brink of partnering with another group to continue the fight for "Workforce Housing" and we will be seeking support from our local government to offer us financial incentives that will offset a portion of the project cost so affordable rents to the workforce tenants are feasible. North Fort Myers, Cape Coral and the City of Fort Myers have many incentives for developers including TIF. Why not Unincorporated Lee County?

Once my group determines the fate of this new project, we will be seeking a property tax related incentive called TIF, which stands for Tax Incremental Financing. In layman's, a TIF offers developers up to a 60% reimbursement of their property taxes for a certain amount of years. The portion of property tax reimbursement does not include areas from emergency services or schools.

Whether you agree with developer incentives or not, this is the only way a "Workforce Housing" concept can be developed. There is no other way since permit / impact fees are already cost prohibitive as well as many other development requirements mandated by the County such as the amount of landscaping they require. The project needs financial incentives and we don't care if it comes from the local, state or federal level. As a developer, our Return on Investment must meet a certain threshold for our business model, investors and lenders. A modest return on our money is expected for the risk we would carry for many years on a project that would require strict compliance and many financial audits.

The future project will be located near Fort Myers Beach, just off Summerlin and provide the workforce housing to households earning $35,000 to $47,550 per year.

Based on these income levels, two working adults likely exceed the "workforce" range. When the media or others ask me who my renters are my response is "any household within the workforce income range." Ideally, young people in emergency services, single parents, new teachers, admin employees, etc.

The crisis of "Attainable Housing" does not discriminate. It is a national issue that must be handled at the local level, unlike "Affordable Housing which is handled by HUD. If you ask the public entity and business owners what the biggest issue in higher success levels, I bet all of them will respond by pointing out the severe lack of qualified applicants.

Yep, it's because they are moving out and we need to figure out how to retain our quality people or this local economy is going to be in trouble.