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Palm Coast Thursday, Apr. 4, 2019 2 weeks ago

How Palm Coast's own rules make housing unaffordable

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Palm Coast’s Comprehensive Plan says quality housing should be available at all income levels. Here's why it's not happening.
by: Guest Writer

By Toby Tobin

The Housing Element section of Palm Coast’s Comprehensive Plan says, “Citizens of all income levels shall have the opportunity to obtain quality housing at a reasonable cost.”

Further, it finds: “The cornerstone of a City’s quality of life is its housing stock. Citizens of all income levels desire safe, secure, good quality housing at a reasonable cost.” And, “the public sector plays a role in helping to ensure that the housing needs of all citizens are met by attempting to balance the cost of housing with the income levels of available jobs in the community.” The affordability goal remains unfulfilled.

A Palm Coast family with the city’s median household income of $51,208 can afford a monthly housing budget (rent or mortgage, taxes, insurance) of $1,280 (at 30% of earnings). Flagler County’s median income is $51,049, carrying with it a maximum monthly housing budget of $1,276. That means that half of the local population cannot afford a $200,000 home. Yet:

The median selling price for a single-family home (2019 year-to-date) in Flagler County is $241,500, affordable only for those earning more than 38% above the county median household income.

Only 31.3% of homes sold countywide were within reach of those with a median household income. In the city, the affordable homes rise to 36.8%.

Of nearly 900 county homes listed for sale by the Multiple Listing Service, only 12.3% have a listing price below $200,000. By the same standard, only 16.4% of Palm Coast homes are affordable.

 

Two sides of affordable housing

Most people conflate the two sides of affordable housing. On one side is the very difficult and seemingly intractable issue of housing for those who are, or should be, in the social welfare system: the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled, the indigent, those simply down on their luck, etc.

This commentary addresses the second side of affordable housing, dealing with the segment of society that is employed or employable. Simply put, the housing stock in Flagler County and Palm Coast is inadequate to suit the needs of the bottom half of the earnings ladder.

To have a meaningful discussion about affordable housing, one must understand its two sides. Whether I call it affordable housing, workforce housing, or entry-level housing, nearly everyone reflexively jumps to the conclusion that I’m talking about the social welfare side of affordable housing. They dig their heels in, citing the dark side of Section 8 housing and using euphemisms like “those kinds of people.”

 

Entry-level housing

Flagler Schools is the county’s largest public sector employer. The starting pay for teachers and first responders is roughly the same: under $40,000 per year, well below the median household income. Their maximum monthly housing budget is about $945 (30% of earnings). Their house hunting is limited to homes selling for no more than $150,000, or only 4.5% of the homes sold year-to-date and only 1.2% of all county homes listed for sale. On a particular day in March, for example, there was only one Palm Coast home listed below $150,000.

The rental side is similarly bleak. MLS lists a total of 95 homes, duplexes, apartments and condos available as long-term rentals. Only two are listed for $950 or less. Only 24 meet the budget of the median household income family. The median rent is $1,450.

The lack of available housing options hinders efforts to recruit employee. Our largest private sector employer is our growing hospital. Entry-level healthcare workers face the same housing affordability dilemma as teachers and first responders. Hospitality, service, and retail workers, at the heart of our county’s economy, are even more challenged. Housing stock is one of the criteria evaluated by companies contemplating a move to our location.

An exhibit at the National Building Museum, based on data from Fannie Mae, reveals that nuclear families account for only 20% of American households, down from 43% in 1950. Singles, living alone, account for nearly 30% of today's households. U.S. housing has not kept up with these trends.

 

Can we build a $150,000 home in Palm Coast?

Palm Coast has roughly 15,000 undeveloped (but buildable) 10,000-square-foot lots which can be purchased for a median price of $20,500. This is less than half of what a developer will pay to develop a community of lots from raw land, but I’ll talk about that later.

Who among us has never lived in rental housing, a one-bath home, a home without a garage, or a home smaller than 1,200 square feet? Are we saying that we do not want to live near our 25-year-old selves?

Assume the minimum-sized single-family residential home allowed in Palm Coast; 1,200 living square feet with a two-car attached garage. In the list of costs below, all but a small percentage of the permit and inspection fees are fixed.

The two most expensive rooms in a house are the kitchen and baths. Adding another bedroom or two, a foyer, a flex room or a den/study costs less per square foot, encouraging builders to build larger homes so they can amortize the lot cost, water and sewer connection fees, and impact fees over a larger space, thus lowering the overall cost per square foot. This discourages builders, as a matter of policy, from building smaller, less expensive homes

Even if the land is free, we can't realistically build a new single-family home in Palm Coast for a starting teacher or first responder. And there is a dearth of affordable existing home inventory.

 

New development

Is new development, either an undeveloped parcel within Palm Coast or elsewhere in the county, a better option for affordable housing? Not really. It costs nearly $600 per lot frontage foot to build a road and infrastructure with buildable lots, assuming a double-loaded road (homes on both sides of the road). Double that number if the road is single loaded.

That puts the raw lot cost of a 60-foot lot at roughly $35,000. Add to that the cost of the raw land, the cost of engineering, wetland mitigation, surveying, platting, rezoning, entry features, amenities, additional sewage lift stations, etc. Realistically, the final cost of the lot approaches $50,000. Additionally, the city transportation impact fee for non-infill lots is $1,349 higher per house.

 

What can we do?

There are several impediments to affordable housing. Not the least of them is the institutionalized NIMBYism of Flagler residents. Everyone wants their pizza delivered expeditiously, but they want the pizza delivery person to live in Putnam, Volusia or St. Johns counties, or at least in the Mondex. This feeling is visceral. It is powerful. It is also irrational.

There have been no building permits issued in all of Flagler County for multifamily construction in over four years.

Who among us has never lived in rental housing, a one-bath home, a home without a garage, or a home smaller than 1,200 square feet? Are we saying that we do not want to live near our 25-year-old selves?

Palm Coast City Council recently ignored a nearly unanimous (6-to-1) recommendation by the Planning and Land Development Regulation Board to reduce the minimum requirement for a permitted single-family home to a one-car attached garage from the currently required two-car attached garage.

Does a single teacher or nurse need a two-car garage?

Such a change would affect only a small percentage of new homes but would reduce that home’s cost by roughly $15,000. There are hundreds of pre-Land Development Code single-car garage homes in Palm Coast. They go unnoticed because they are, well, unnoticeable.

We can allow greater density. There have been no building permits issued in all of Flagler County for multifamily construction in over four years. With a maximum allowable density of only 12 units per acre, Palm Coast has effectively discouraged apartment development. Apartments are so scarce that apartment rents rival single-family and duplex housing rents.

There are new apartments in the permitting cycle with construction planned to begin this year. At least some of the rents are projected to be less than $1,000 monthly. These are made possible by subsidies available through Palm Coast’s Opportunity Zone and Innovation District within Town Center. Yet their arrival is being met with much-anticipated NIMBYism.

On the single-family home side, narrower lots will require fewer linear feet of new roads and reduce stormwater management needs (and costs). Smaller lots will reduce environmental impact and the need for landscape irrigation. Smaller footprint homes will lower construction costs and reduce stormwater runoff.

 

Restrictive building codes

Modular homes are the product of a more efficient method of construction, built in an environmentally controlled factory rather than on-site. Modular homes meet Florida building codes and are not prohibited as a class in Palm Coast. Yet there are no modular homes here.

The median age of Flagler County residents rose from 47.2 in 2010 to 50.3 in 2017. That’s 5.3 months per year. At 30.2% of Flagler’s population is 65 or older, making it demographically one of the oldest counties in the country. Don’t think that this rather dramatic shift is not the result, at least in part, of our inaction on affordable housing.

The reason lies within the city's own rules. The Comprehensive Plan states that the city "shall establish a mobile/manufactured home (bearing the HUD approval insignia) zoning district, which is not subject to the same architectural and aesthetic regulations as applied in the City’s other residential zoning districts. The City’s LDC shall provide that lawfully existing mobile homes may be allowed, subject to conditions, to continue as non-conforming uses."

But the Architectural Design Regulations of the LDC make it nearly impossible for a modular home community to be built in the city. Requirements dealing with pitched roofs, massing requirements, articulation, fenestration, shutters and awnings tend to be incompatible with modular construction standards.

In other words: “Not In My Back Yard.” Palm Coast has neither mobile home communities nor modular homes. This is akin to red-lining. It is exclusionary zoning.

Lack of action is far-reaching. The median age of Flagler County residents rose from 47.2 in 2010 to 50.3 in 2017. That’s 5.3 months per year. At 30.2% of Flagler’s population is 65 or older, making it demographically one of the oldest counties in the country. Don’t think that this rather dramatic shift is not the result, at least in part, of our inaction on affordable housing.

Inaction affects not only the quantity but the quality of our available labor force. Those earning below the median household income are more likely to be transportation-impaired (without reliable transportation or without the income to cover long commuting expenses). The best workers, especially in these times of full employment, will find work near home. Less qualified employees will have to seek employment farther away. By limiting nearby affordable housing, Flagler County is lowering both the size and the quality of its available labor pool.

 

Living up to the Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan was not created by a third party. It was not thrust upon an unwilling City Council. It was not a pre-emption document emanating from Tallahassee. It was written locally and adopted by the City Council. It should not be treated as something to hang on the wall to put your benevolence on display. It should find itself not only in the text but also in the spirit and implementation of the Land Development Code.

My comments are admittedly focused on Palm Coast, in part because the clear delineation between their “goal,” as reflected in the Comprehensive Plan, and the reality of their action is most stark. It’s also because Palm Coast represents nearly 80% of the county population and therefore, its housing stock. It is the “gorilla in the room,” a moniker of which they are generally proud.

But my commentary is aimed at everyone — both elected officials (in other municipalities and at the county) and residents. It is a connected world. There are lots of moving parts to affordable housing. For instance, the abundance of cars parked in driveways (and swales) on your street is less due to the lack of garage space than to the lack of affordable housing. Homes designed to be single-family residences are now housing multi-generational families. Many residents are renting extra rooms to non-family members to help cover the cost of their own housing.

As the Comprehensive Plan says, “The cornerstone of a City’s quality of life is its housing stock. Citizens of all income levels desire safe, secure, good quality housing at a reasonable cost.” And, “the public sector plays a role in helping to ensure that the housing needs of all citizens are met by attempting to balance the cost of housing with the income levels of available jobs in the community.”

Prompt action is required. The health of our local economy and our quality of life depend on it.

Toby Tobin publishes real estate news at www.gotoby.com. This article was republished with his permission.

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