This essay, written by Graceful Solutions President Bill Wilson, first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on December 1, 2017.
Is your home affordable? Is your rent affordable? A large number of people in Tallahassee and Leon County would answer no to those questions.
During 2017, I had the honor of serving as the Chair of the Tallahassee-Leon County Affordable Housing Workgroup appointed jointly by the City and County Commissions. We presented our final report and 26 recommendations in a meeting of the joint Commissions in late October.
During our months of exploration and discussion about affordable housing, we found there was a lack of understanding of the term. One large misconception is that affordable housing means housing for poor people. For sure, people on the lower end of the income scale need to be able to find housing that is affordable for them. It is also true, however, that people like teachers, police officers and fire fighters also need to find housing they can afford. There are cities in Florida where the price of housing is such that people in this income level are not able to live in the city they serve.
What people in the housing field mean when they talk about housing affordability, applies to people at all income levels. If your housing costs (either rent or a combination of mortgage, interest, taxes, insurance and utilities) exceeds 30% of your income, your housing is not considered affordable for you. This 30% standard is also defined in Florida Law as the measure of affordability.
Using the 30% standard, we have a significant challenge in Leon County and the City of Tallahassee. We don’t have enough housing that is affordable across the income spectrum.
Part of the challenge is the cost of housing and the other part is the income levels of our residents. The United Way of Florida produces an annual ALICE Report. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It applies to people who are working and earn more than the national poverty level but don’t make enough to support a survival budget. According to the ALICE report 41% of the households in Leon County earn less than is necessary to cover the basic costs of living. The breakdown is 22% percent of our households are below the poverty level and another 19% are struggling.
The challenges for the low income resident in our community were made visible when the Tallahassee Housing Authority opened their waiting list for Housing Choice Vouchers. The waiting list had not been opened for 10 years.
The Housing Authority has fewer than 3,000 vouchers and they only have about 250 available each year as a result of people improving their income to a level that made them ineligible or they had other life changes. After duplicates were removed and income verification was complete, there were over 15,000 eligible families on the waiting list.
Another community issue that is impacted by the lack of affordable housing is retaining the talent we are developing in Tallahassee. Why are our best and brightest leaving? One of the reasons is the difference between wages and housing prices. Housing shortages drive up housing prices and there is a shortage in the portion of the market referred to as “workforce housing”. When you consider what you can make and what it will cost to live there are other options in the state that fare better than Tallahassee.
Solving our affordable housing shortage across all income levels is vital to not only creating stability for families but to also be able to attract and retain a quality workforce for our community.
The recommendations from the Workgroup are a good start. One of those recommendations was to create an Affordable Housing Leadership Council to continue the work and ensure that the recommendations of this group are implemented. That needs to happen soon so we don’t lose the momentum that the Workgroup has created around the issue.