Quest for the Key

Leaders seek solutions to the housing dilemma faced by local workforce

Restaurant server Christine Smith is struggling to find affordable housing in Indian River County for herself and her 12-year-old son, Mylz. Photo by Steven Martine
Restaurant server Christine Smith is struggling to find affordable housing in Indian River County for herself and her 12-year-old son, Mylz. Photo by Steven Martine

Many families seeking the American dream of homeownership, even with two working parents, have a problem in Indian River County.

The down payment and credit considerations are the first issues to be faced. Add the price of a small house, which has soared as a result of COVID and its aftermath, and homeownership may be out of reach. The cost of renting, driven up by the same economic forces, is proving to be unaffordable for working residents with low to moderate incomes.

Just ask Christine Smith, a server at a local restaurant. The single mother and her son are living with a friend because buying a home or renting an apartment is impossible. Most rentals she finds range from $2,100 to $2,500 a month. “That’s just too much on one person’s salary,” she says. And if you find a more affordable apartment, there is a year waiting list.”

Then there are the scams, she adds. “I went online and found a few houses to rent in the $1,000 to $1,500 a month range, and they have turned out to be scams. This has happened to me twice.”

The standard rule for affordable housing is that a household pay no more than 30 percent of its gross income toward housing. When salaries do not keep up with rising rents or home prices, a problem results. And it touches everyone, because we rely on a vibrant workforce to provide vital functions, such as teaching our children and protecting us and our property, as well as performing necessary services in the retail, tourism, landscaping, home-repair, and medical support sectors.

“We are in a crisis now in the state of Florida, and it’s the free market that’s dictating prices,” says Indian River County Commissioner Joe Earman. “Between 2019 and 2021, COVID brought more people to Florida and Indian River County to escape states that were more restrictive. They ended up liking it here and buying homes and property, many as cash deals, and the values went sky high.”

IRC Commissioner Susan Adams
IRC Commissioner Susan Adams

County Commissioner Susan Adams, the liaison to the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC), also weighs in on the problem: “We are not just talking about the homeless and the very poor, but about middle-class workers, too— people who have jobs and are able to pay their rent and their bills but are just one medical or mechanical emergency away from being in a very tight spot. We also have the stable middle-class workers who can’t find affordable housing.”

She adds, “The need for more affordable housing affects all of us. If you run a business, whether it’s a hospital, or a restaurant, or an insurance company, and the people that you need to work for you can’t afford to live in the community in which they are working, then you start having an employee problem.”

While the critical need for more affordable housing in Indian River County is clear, it is equally clear that there are no simple, easy, or immediate fixes. Ameliorating the problem, which most agree can be done, takes a combination of federal and state funds, incentives created at the local level, cooperation from the private sector, and a community understanding of the scope of the need.

One suggestion that would allow for development of affordable housing entails moving the urban service boundary (USB) to provide water and sewer services and annexing land currently zoned as agricultural. Indeed, Indian River County is home to large parcels of land that once flourished with lush citrus groves. The challenges of the modern citrus industry have pressured grove owners to seek alternatives for the land.

There are pros and cons to annexation, says Phil Matson, director of Indian River County Community Development, and the county must weigh a number of environmental, ecological, traffic, and other considerations. “What does more development potentially mean in terms of more pollutants for the lagoon? Will it potentially usurp our scarce water resources, and are there conservation areas out west amidst the farms that we should protect?”

On the other hand, it creates unique circumstances, he continues. “When we provide a concession for development, like extending the USB, there is an opportunity for us to get something in return, such as setting aside some percentage of the development that working middle-class residents, those above the minimum wage level, could afford.

“Then you have to have a mechanism for granting that affordable housing to worthy, qualified people and ensuring that it stays affordable. So, yes, it’s a great idea, but a few marching orders come with it, and it’s not an immediate solution.”

A less complicated approach, Matson acknowledges, is developing agriculture-zoned land that is already within the USB and is surrounded by existing subdivisions. These are smaller parcels, including some south of the Indian River State College Mueller Campus, on which performing any meaningful agricultural business is difficult.

Once land is zoned appropriately for development, there is the matter of attracting and negotiating with a developer to set aside at least a portion of a new subdivision for affordable homes or apartments. To this end, the AHAC reviewed and updated recommendations on affordable housing incentives in 2021, and they were approved by the county commission. These incentives include allowances for flexibility in densities; expedited approvals; fee waivers; reduction in parking and setback requirements; and other concessions.

Matson points to a recent success that will add some workforce housing in an apartment complex on vacant land near Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. “We have a developer who proposed very nice studio and one-bedroom apartments potentially targeting people who work at the hospital and the area nursing homes who don’t make a lot of money but need affordable housing. We allowed it under the limits of our existing regulations and it went through, but not without a fight.” Residents from nearby subdivisions protested the development, claiming it would decrease the value of their homes.

IRC Commissioner Joe Earman
IRC Commissioner Joe Earman

Of course, it is incumbent upon the developer to make the project as attractive as possible to help satisfy neighbors. Matson agrees, saying, “No county in the state of Florida has better development standards than Indian River County. Our landscaping, tree preservation, open space, drainage, and other standards are top notch, and my evidence would be that we are always being asked to waive these requirements and we never do.”

In addition to incentives to encourage affordable housing, the county has created several new grant programs using authorized COVID-relief funds

from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). John Stoll, the county’s chief of Long Range Planning, explains the grant programs, nicknamed SHARP, CENO, and RENO.

“SHARP is for down payment assistance. We already have the State Housing Initiative Partnership (SHIP) for down payment assistance, but that is a maximum forgivable loan of $20,000. Admittedly, that isn’t enough in this market. So we added ARP funds to SHIP and created SHARP, which allows us to double what we can give a qualified buyer for purchase assistance.”

These buyers range from very lowto moderate-income individuals, or those earning at or below 120 percent the county’s median income. “Dozens of individuals have tapped into this grant program to purchase an affordable home in the past months,” Stoll says.

Jevon Cummings, who has worked as a custodian with the School District of Indian River County for 19 years, is a recent SHARP grant recipient. Having just bought his first home at age 42, he says of SHARP, “It’s a really good program, and the down payment from the county helped big time. The majority of banks are going to ask for 20 percent down, and because of my down payment I was able to get financing for the rest of the home price.”

Other grant recipients include Thomas and Cheryl Placanica, who used a SHIP loan to purchase a home in Vero Beach in 2010. With additional ARP funds that can also be used for rehabilitating a house, they were able to repair the roof and replace the air-conditioning system. “The process was difficult,” Thomas Placanica says, “and for good reason, to make sure we were qualified and that we deserved the money.”

CENO and RENO are grant programs that assist nonprofit agencies and facilities serving low-income residents. RENO provides rehabilitation funds, and CENO funds go toward new construction. “Most recently,” Stoll says, “we replaced a roof on a Treasure Coast Homeless Services home through the RENO program. And CENO funds were used to construct a Treasure Coast Homeless Services triplex, which will house three families, and to St. Francis Manor to expand its facility.” St. Francis Manor of Vero Beach is home to low-income seniors.

The final newly created county affordable housing program, labeled LARP, is a hybrid approach using low-income housing tax credits and a grant from the county’s ARP funds. Matson breaks it down this way: “This program is for mega-developers of large-scale apartment complexes for low-income housing individuals. Let’s say you have an income from a going business. You can build an apartment and offset the losses you take for that low-income apartment against your profitable businesses. This is a very viable national program using affordable housing tax credits. We are sweetening the pot with our ARP money to try to attract low-income tax credit developers, and we have a project that is currently in development.”

Jevon Cummings, a custodian with the School District of Indian River County, stands in front of the home he purchased in January 2022 with funding from a SHARP grant. Photo by Steven Martine
Jevon Cummings, a custodian with the School District of Indian River County, stands in front of the home he purchased in January 2022 with funding from a SHARP grant. Photo by Steven Martine

In Gifford, the county is reviewing a bid from a developer of more than 20 home sites on land where the 1960s-era Gifford Gardens apartment complex was demolished. The affordable housing project will provide a much-needed homeownership opportunity for Gifford residents.

Because unincorporated Indian River County comprises only 65 percent of the population, the other municipalities in the county also have a role in addressing the housing issue.

According to Jason Jeffries, City of Vero Beach Planning and Development director, he will soon be reviewing and updating the city’s affordable housing policies and incentives with the planning board. At this time, no affordable housing projects are slated for Vero Beach. However, both Sebastian and Fellsmere are in talks for developments that sound promising.

Lisa Frazier, Sebastian Community Development director, says the city is updating its comprehensive land use plan to include a new zoning category for a development with smaller units and more density and offering incentives to developers.

“If there is a way to change our codes so that we can encourage a mix of housing so that we have units that may be smaller or more compact in a little higher density, it will be more affordable,” she says. “We have put in a new zoning code, which is multi-family 10 units per acre, and in it we are basically stating that if a developer has 600-square-foot units or less in a multi-family structure, we will count it as half a density. And in this zoning category we have also reduced the amount of parking that is required and other incentives because we understand that the cost of the materials, the cost of the development, the cost of the land, of course, then gets passed on to the consumer.” The city is currently eyeing two such projects.

In Fellsmere, the city is in talks with a developer for a new subdivision on vacant land that will have a workforce housing component for the lower-middle-income market. City Planner Robert Loring explains, “It is a mix of single-family and multi-family housing with some commercial development. According to preliminary drawings, it will have a total of 331 units, of which 153 will be single family homes and the remainder will be townhomes. It will have a retention area, a pool, and a clubhouse.”

These proposed projects and the affordable housing that already exists can help but will not solve the crisis in Indian River County. Yet county and municipal elective and administrative officials show acute awareness of and a desire to address the problem.

Commissioner Earman stresses, “It has been a frustrating issue and it will take a lot of work, and all of us working together. But we have to try.”

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