Offering adequate, affordable workforce housing can be a challenge. As cities continue to grow and add jobs, many find their current housing situations are lacking, with many people commuting in from other locations to work.
Many cities are tackling this problem head-on through the implementation of programs, as well as partnerships with local nonprofit organizations that specialize in fulfilling housing needs.
Pensacola has set an ambitious goal — 500 homes in five years.
“It came from our council president,” Pensacola Housing Director Marcie Whitaker said. “She was the champion of this.”
To accomplish this, the city has established a task force consisting of local real estate brokers, architects, members of the lending community, advocates for those with disabilities and other area experts. As they formulated their plan, three buzzwords the task force began to focus on were “equity,” “accessibility” and “affordability.”
The task force began meeting in February 2020. Shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic began and the task force had to postpone further action.
In June through August, a combination of in-person and online meetings took place. The Florida Housing Coalition, a nonprofit firm out of Tallahassee, acted as a facilitator, attending the meetings and compiling a final report.
“The second meeting brought forth a picture of the community, with demographic information, affordability information, where funding is going currently,” Whitaker said.
At the third meeting, the coalition presented 18 possible strategies, which the task force narrowed down to six recommendations: engage in strategic partnership; collaborate with the private sector; leverage existing property; support tax credit development; identify and encourage suitable sites for development; and identify creative use properties.
While these are the six the task force will focus on, the report will still include all 18 original strategies.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to conquer these first six and want to move on to some of the other strategies outlined,” Whitaker said.
The final meeting took place in August, with the city council adopting the recommendations at its September meeting.
The task force has specific goals under each strategy. For example, under “identify creative use properties,” ideas include empty big-box stores, old school sites and unused churches, which can be made into houses, condos, town houses or apartments.
As far as collaborating with the private sector, the idea is to find out what kinds of incentives will truly help the builders and others within that group.
“As we know, buildings costs continue to go up, and for-profit builders, they need to make a profit, so municipalities are going to have to bring some sort of incentive package to the table,” Whitaker said.
The city has created a new position to work with the task force on implementing the identified recommendations. This position was worked into the city’s budget.
“The council and the mayor have been supportive of this,” Whitaker said. “For him to create a new item in our budget, I was very, very pleased.
“I think one of the key things I’ve learned is that housing is part of a community’s infrastructure,” she continued. “If you aren’t meeting the needs of your whole population long term, it’s going to be a problem because you want to be able to live, work and play, all within your community.”
Marion and Elkhart, Ind.
While creating affordable workforce housing is important in any city, sometimes that responsibility ends up on the shoulders of the nonprofit sector. The cities of Marion and Elkhart both have strong nonprofit entities that are working to alleviate some of the housing burden.
Recently, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority awarded two $500,000 grants for cities to put toward the Modular Workforce Housing Pilot Program.
In Marion, located roughly halfway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the grant will help fund a number of custom modular homes for both individual occupants and families.
According to Mikayla Marazzi, development director for Marion’s Affordable Housing and Community Development Corporation, a request for quotes went out to a select number of municipalities across Indiana.
“The whole purpose of the program is to transform blight elimination lots and to provide housing options for people in the low to moderate income levels,” Marazzi said.
From 2014 to 2018, the organization had worked with the city of Marion on its blight elimination program.
“So, when we got the RFQ, our executive director approached the city and assembled a team that had been part of the blight elimination program,” Marazzi said.
The city identified 75 lots, most of which are central to the downtown area, where blighted buildings had been. Working with a modular home company, the organization seeks to build homes suited to each individual
“Applicants will apply for the program and will work with the bank to see what kind of mortgage they can obtain,” Marazzi said. “And they will get some options from the dealer.”
A base home costs around $130,000, Marazzi said, but that can fluctuate depending on the buyer’s needs.
“The neat thing about this program is the flexibility of the homeowner to design and choose the home of their dreams,” Marazzi said.
The current goal is to have between four and six homes built within the year, Marazzi said.
To Marazzi, programs like this one are a way to fulfill a need that exists in so many communities nationwide.
“The housing market is so tight and a lot of the houses that exist are either in the $200,000 range or they need a lot of work,” she said. “These provide a middle ground for people who want a nice home, not a fixer-upper, and want to live centrally in the city.”
Merazzi cautions not to confuse modular homes and manufactured housing.
“The technology has gotten so good, they really go head-to-head with traditional, stick-built homes, but they are more cost-efficient, they are built faster, there are a lot of benefits to them,” she said.
In the northern part of the state, La Casa of Elkhart County is working with the city of Elkhart on the construction of three modular homes, all within a block of each other on the city’s south side. These will be sold as they are built and will be roughly 1,232 square feet with three bedrooms and two bathrooms apiece.
Work on the houses began in May, with the first order placed in July. However, the wait time increased from just a few weeks to several months due to a pandemic-limited workforce. Thus, the first home will not be complete until some time in 2021.
“COVID really threw off the schedules at the factories due to the shutdowns,” La Casa Vice President of Real Estate Development Brad Hunsberger said.
While he did not have the exact numbers, Hunsberger noted that Elkhart has a large workforce that commutes in every day from surrounding cities.
“What we have right now is a market that is overly constricted, to where people have a desire to move but cannot find a place to live,” he said.
That is where partnerships like the city of Elkhart and La Casa come in.
“For a healthy operating market, there needs to be options on all levels of the housing market, from subsidized to high-end housing,” Hunsberger said. “A properly functioning market will allow for upward mobility within their housing, by being able to sell their house and upgrade their house over time.”
La Casa has two other projects underway, Hunsberger added. One is to provide houses for families in Elkhart and nearby Goshen who are below the 80% median income.
Another is an affordable rental project to rehabilitate three side-by-side duplexes in Elkhart, with the goal of having the units ready to rent by fall 2021.