Westlake’s Council Not HAPPY With Home Assistance Program

The Westlake entrance sign.

The City of Westlake has $2.5 million sitting in its Housing Assistance Purchase Program Yearly (HAPPY) trust fund to help first-time and lower-income homebuyers, and no way to use it.

City Manager Kenneth Cassel and council members agree on the problem — in Palm Beach County, household incomes and home prices often exceed the Federal Housing Administration guidelines on which the program is based.

“The program needs a major overhaul,” Mayor JohnPaul O’Connor said at the Tuesday, July 11 meeting of the Westlake City Council.

He noted that there’s a need for the program, but local developers don’t have a product to meet it.

Household income and caps on the home prices that qualify need to be re-examined, O’Connor said. “We don’t want to be handcuffed by our own ordinance,” he said.

Since its incorporation in 2016, Westlake has tried to position itself as a relatively affordable alternative in a county brimming with million-dollar homes and apartment rents averaging more than $2,200 a month.

Through “Welcome Heroes” — a program of Minto Communities USA, the area’s largest landowner and developer — and HAPPY housing discounts or tax breaks, help is available to teachers, medical professionals, government workers, first responders and active-duty members of the military. HAPPY also includes military veterans.

“People are struggling to find a home in Palm Beach County. Those are the people we want to help,” Councilwoman Charlotte Leonard said. “We’d love to get more young families, young professionals into homes here.”

Leonard said that Westlake needs to rethink “what is the proper price point when you’re looking at median income for a young professional. How do we support them in getting a home in Westlake?”

Cassel said that he is trying to find creative ways to get homes into the hands of people who need them. For instance, looking to partner with the Tunnels to Towers Foundation in its Smart Homes Program, which seeks to “show gratitude for the sacrifices and service of the U.S. Armed Services returning from war who have been catastrophically injured by building smart technology homes so they can regain their independence,” according to the TTF web site.

“We’re looking at ways to give back,” Cassel said. “We want to find ways to help people get into their first home.”

The HAPPY program is funded by a $1,500 surcharge on the sale or resale of any home in Westlake. The city is averaging approximately 40 to 45 new single-family home sales per month, Cassel said. That would add $60,000 or more a month to the city’s housing trust fund.

“At the rate the city is growing, there’ll be $3 million in there before you know it,” O’Connor said.

The council scheduled a workshop on the issue for October.

In other business:

  • City Clerk Zoie P. Burgess and Recording Clerk Mery Ramirez were saluted for their efforts in organizing the community’s annual FourthFest event on Tuesday, July 4.

“Behind the scenes, they were our secret sauce,” O’Connor said. “They crushed it. It was an epic success.”

Cassel estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 people attended the second annual event, which included food trucks, music, games for children and a fireworks show.

“It wasn’t just residents,” Councilman Julian Martinez said. “There were people from all over the western communities.”

  • The council heard complaints from a resident of the Cresswind 55-and-over neighborhood about the lack of public transportation in Westlake, especially as it pertains to older residents getting to doctors’ appointments.

O’Connor and others sympathized but said that in the end, Palm Tran buses and other public transportation outlets are a matter for the county. He said that he has talked with county officials about it, but there are no plans for service to Westlake, and it would take far too much money for the city to fund such a service.

Cassel said that he hopes to see Universal Health Services, which owns and operates the ER at Westlake, expand its presence in the community on property it already owns, negating the need for residents to travel outside Westlake for basic medical care. However, he said, some form of mass transit would help lower-income service industry workers who will be drawn to Westlake as its economy expands and diversifies.

Still, Cassel said, Palm Tran’s stance is another example of the county “ignoring the western communities and putting all their assets to the east. The demographics are changing, and that needs to be revisited.”

He encouraged concerned residents to attend Palm Beach County Commission meetings in as large a number as they can muster and make their feelings known. “That’s what moves the needle,” Cassel said.