by: STUART KORFHAGE, The St. Augustine Record Updated:
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) - St. Johns County is a land of top-rated schools, low unemployment and the state's highest median household income.
And all of that comes at a price many residents are finding nearly impossible to afford.
In an area where it's hard to find a place where you can't hear the rumble of vehicular traffic and/or earth movers clearing land for yet another development, not everybody is benefiting from the building boom.
As the county has become one of the most desirable in North Florida, businesses have come, builders have become tireless and home values have risen.
While there are a lot of positives in those developments, the one big drawback is that a large slice of the population is being priced out of the county.
One of the many residents living this battle is J. Parker.
A single mother, she shares a one-bedroom apartment with her daughter, sleeping on a futon in the living room, because the rent is so high here.
"I have been looking hard for the past year for a two-bedroom (apartment), but with no luck," she told The Record in an email. "I simply cannot afford it! I make just over the limit for income-based housing, but not enough to live in a decent home with room for us both."
She's hardly alone. The ALICE - Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed - report from the United Way released less than two weeks ago said that as of 2015, St. Johns County had 23,812 (28 percent) households that were not earning enough to meet their basic needs.
Despite the highest median household income in the state at $70,379, residents here who find themselves below that threshold are often struggling because housing has become so expensive here.
According to the Apartment List Rent Report, updated March 1, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,030 and $1,300 for a two-bedroom. That's a 5.8 percent increase, year to date.
The Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse information shows rent has been high for a while. Its report said gross median rent between 2010 and 2014 was $1,105 for the county compared to $998 statewide.
A Living Wage Calculator developed by Amy K. Glasmeier and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that an adult with one child needs to make $23.12 an hour to meet living expenses. However, that rate could be reduced somewhat if the child did not require paid day care.
Parker said she's been in her one-bedroom place for five years and that there are two-bedroom rentals in the area for $900-$1,000, but when you factor in utilities and other costs, it's difficult to afford.
"So as a single mom my only option to provide a decent life for my child is to work two jobs," Parker said in her email. "When am I supposed to be a parent and have time with my kid? It is sinful how much (the) cost of living is in this town.
"In Jacksonville, you can get a 3 or 4 bedroom HOUSE for what you will pay for a 2 bedroom APARTMENT here."
Parker said she works in Jacksonville, like many county residents, but stays here for the school system.
Melissa Nelson, the president and CEO of United Way of St. Johns County, said her agency hears from people like Parker - and those who are in more difficult situations - all the time.
Most personal finance experts recommend allocating 20 to 30 percent of income for rent, Apartment List notes. But if someone has a job making $30,000 per year and gets a rental that costs $1,000 per month, that's 40 percent of income going to rent.
Nelson said that puts a huge strain on people should they encounter some unexpected expense like a car repair or medical issue.
Having a large percentage of residents living one false step from financial disaster is bad for the community in general, she said, pointing out that it isn't just young people in the service industry just starting out who are on the financial edge.
"We're a community that is always going to have service industry jobs, and there's not a thing wrong with that," Nelson said. "People that are falling into this category are not all service industry personnel. It's our first responders, our educators. It's our para-professionals. It's our school bus drivers."
Rentals: Pricey but scarce
The difficult part for those who can afford to pay more than $1,000 a month for rent is they still have trouble finding suitable housing.
Beverly O'Nell, property manager of Century 21 St Augustine Properties on U.S. 1 South, said her office currently manages about 100 rentals. The number of those available as of last week: one.
With 10 years at Century 21, O'Nell said she has seen steady occupancy rates of rentals for the past seven years.
She said a typical house in St. Augustine Shores or St. Augustine South, neighborhoods close to her office, rents for an average of $1,100 to $1,500. And renters have to move quickly if they want to get in one.
"They really don't stay on the market very long," O'Nell said. "It's a very strong market. I usually don't have more than five properties vacant at a time."
To get the right to rent one of those places, a client will have to pass a background check and a credit check. And depending on the owner, a renter might also be required to pay first and last month's rent along with a security deposit.
That upfront cost can price some people out.
"It's hard to find an affordable, decent place to live, and that's a hard thing," she said. "I can't help everybody and I'd like to. I've had tenants that I'd want to buy a place for just because they're such great people, but I can't do that."
What is the appeal?
Despite the tight and expensive rental market and not having many of the large employers located in Jacksonville or Orlando, St. Johns County has grown rapidly. Its population has gone from 190,000 to 226,000 since 2010.
While it's not the cheapest place to buy a home - the median sales price of a single-family home was $285,000 last year - this county has a lot of positive trends.
Most developers and real estate agents say the county's top draw is the top-rated school system, but there's more to its allure.
While there will always be some positions that are hard to fill, employers here say they generally don't have a hard time hiring people despite the high cost of housing.
Of course, most jobs don't require residence in the county, and bordering counties have much cheaper rental prices.
Even the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office amended its policies a decade ago to allow deputies with patrol vehicles to live within 10 miles of the St. Johns County line. Other Sheriff's Office employees can live wherever they want.
In the most recent report from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, St. Johns County had an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, lower than all but two of the state's 67 counties.
The average value of a single-family home in St. Johns County is $286,189, much higher than the statewide average of $219,681 - according to the Florida Department of Revenue.
The average value of a condominium is $183,226.
St. Johns County also ranks as one of the best-educated communities in Florida with more than 42 percent of those 25 and older having earned at least a bachelor's degree and 94 percent having at least a high school diploma.
With so many things going right, Nelson said some people in the nonprofit community outside of St. Johns County don't understand the real challenge of affordable housing here. She said it's the No. 1 issue facing the county, from her agency's perspective.
"We don't necessarily want to say, 'Well, if you can't afford to live here, go away,' " she said. "That's not fair. The people that are desirous of living here are desirous because they want to change their lives, not because they want to be a tourist at the beach."
Information from: The St. Augustine (Fla.) Record, http://www.staugustine.com
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