Voters To Decide On County’s Affordable Housing Bond Proposal

By Charles Elmore

Less than a month ahead of the Tuesday, Nov. 8 ballot decision, the Wellington Village Council heard a presentation on a plan that asks Palm Beach County voters to approve a bond issue to help developers build housing for the increasingly priced-out middle class.

County voters will decide whether to pay for a $200 million bond issue to subsidize lower borrowing costs for affordable-unit developers, as opposed to other potential options, such as imposing fees on builders of market-rate housing.

For the average homeowner, the proposal would work out to about $14 more per year in taxes, said Suzanne Cabrera, president and CEO of the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County. The nonprofit organization was formed in 2006 by business and community leaders to address home affordability.

“It will really help in terms of making sure that we have places for essential workers,” Cabrera said in a presentation to the council on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Such workers include teachers with salaries starting in the $50,000 range, for instance, as well as police officers, firefighters, people who care for children and the elderly, and others, she said.

If approved, the bond money could form one component of a larger strategy to build about 20,000 “workforce” and affordable housing units over 10 years across Palm Beach County, Cabrera said.

The idea is to offer low-interest loans to developers with rates from zero to 3 percent, in a range that would cover both nonprofit and for-profit builders.

In return, developers would agree to keep in place certain agreed-upon lower rents and prices for 20 years.

Where will these units go? Cabrera said ideal locations would be on “major thoroughfares near employment,” mentioning areas served by rail in eastern Palm Beach County, for example. To the west, the Glades will have an opportunity to add units, she said.

That touched on one of the concerns raised by a dissenting member of the Palm Beach County Commission, which voted 4-2 earlier this year to put the plan to the voters. One no vote came from Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents both the western communities and the Glades. She wondered if it was a good idea to raise taxes in a time of inflation, marked by high gas prices and other costs.

McKinlay said she “didn’t want to tax the western communities’ residents if they weren’t going to receive any benefit from it.”

Before the vote, some in county government questioned the heavy focus on a bond funded by taxpayers to the exclusion of other options.

The county could consider alternatives, such as fees charged to builders when they construct housing to be sold at full market rates, said Jonathan Brown, the county’s director of housing and economic development.

“We need to make sure there is transparency in what is presented because there may be other options that are better,” he said, according to media reports.

Cabrera told the Wellington council that the imbalance between housing supply and demand in the county is pricing out ordinary workers, explaining that developers need “incentives” such as lower borrowing costs to justify affordable housing projects to investors.

Mayor Anne Gerwig, who serves on the board of the Housing Leadership Council, said she could assure people that there will be transparency with how the money is used.

“Everything about this will be public,” Cabrera added.

Councilwoman Tanya Siskind said that voter education on the bond issue is crucial.

“I think it’s important we educate people, because they hear affordable housing, workforce housing, they get nervous,” she said. “They think it’s something that it’s not. This is actually a financing mechanism that will be an incentive for the developers.”

Someone would have to make $200,000 to $250,000 a year to be able to afford the county’s average home price right now, Cabrera said.

Siskind framed the proposition as, “For $14 year, would you like to have your teacher or firefighter in your community be able to live in your community? I think that makes people feel better about it.”

1 COMMENT

  1. You want to have the taxpayers help the developers make more money and help the highest paid County employees get into a home cheaper? That’s wrong in soo many ways. How about the Water Dept. or maintenance employees? They could use a home at an affordable price!

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