A Workforce Housing Option


Workforce housing is possible.

As we sit comfortably in our homes this holiday season, or visit friends and family in their homes, we are reminded of those who are less fortunate than us. We praise, and maybe even donate to the homeless shelters serving those living on the street, especially on these cold nights. We support blankets and heaters for those seniors living alone, and maybe donate a turkey or canned goods to families in need.

We probably are not tuning in much to the BluePrint debate on supporting affordable housing development or the United Way’s effort to help and counsel those who are in substandard housing or spending 50% or more of their montly income on rent and utilities alone. Few of us read Bill Wilson and Anthony Gaudio’s recent comments in the Democrat encoraging policy makers to expand the availablity of afflodable places to rent.

But development in this town is where there is money to be made. And that is student housing where one can get $5000 or more a month for a four bedroom four bath, common living area apartment. This doesn’t work for low income or working class families. Or keep recent graduates in town.

While the waiting list is endless for low income affordable housing in Tallahassee, the future for significant development or investment in this area is not bright. There is another avenue for consideration, however, that focuses on workforce housing, targeting those who are steadily emplyoyed as maintenance workers, teachers and teacher aides, nurses and CNA’s, police and firefighters, and other not in management or higher salaried positions.

There is local government support for home ownership for moderate income families, but it is limited by supply. Many affordable homes are scooped up by investors and turned into rental properies, adding little to the stability of families or the neighborhood. Home ownership is a predictor of family stability as well as the primary source of inter-generational wealth. With home ownership the quality of the housing stock is maintained or improved, Crime in neighborhood with a majority of home ownership is lower, and involvement in neighborhood schools is greater.

There are some innovative ways to improve home ownership for workforce familiies that other communities have tried. A study some two decades ago by Florida State University highlighted how a number of colleges and universities are leading in this area. Between FAMU and FSU there are over 10,000 maintenace and support staff who   could benefit from a program offering the opportunity to become a homeowner.

The program works like this. Instead of investing in a stadium, the university puts into its foundation several million dollars. The school then puchases properties in areas near the school, rehabs the units, then leases them to employees. After three years or so, the employee is eligible to purchase the home with the lease payments credited as down payment. After three years the employee may sell the home to another employee or the university at market rate and keep the equity earned. The university uses the lease and puchase payments to expand the inventory and continue improving the community surrounding the school. Keeping a land lease on all the property allows the univerity to maintain control of the transactions and partnerships with local credit unions or other lenders keeps fiancing available.

This approach helps the university by increasing employee retention and supporting a safer neighborhood around the school. With a variety of housing types it can also help with young faculty recruitment and reduce commute times. And is it a specific expenditure that benefits the community at large by maintaining home values in the area.

While there are some models where a local land trust or community non-profit uses a similar approach. Unless there is a significant initial cash infusion from a community minded investor, however, it is a very hit and miss effort. There is no reason that our two universities cannot lead the way to make their employees eligible for the stability and security of home ownership. And we would watch those neighborhoods and school improve their quality.

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