Priced out of Jax: Realtors say affordable housing bill doesn’t address needs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A rush of people moving from out of state to escape the pandemic has made the affordable housing crisis unlivable for some in northeast Florida.

Sarena, who asked we not share her last name, opened the door to her new life in Jacksonville. She just moved from Delaware with her boyfriend, who got a job on base while she works virtually from home.

“Things are open, the weather is nice, and there’s employment for him,” she said.

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But the Holiday Hill apartment they’re currently living in is not big enough for when Sarena’s 17-year-old daughter moves in, so the hunt for a new place is on. She told Action News Jax’s Robert Grant the main thing holding them back from finding a permanent space is money.

“We’re even talking about what we can skimp on, cut back on, and stop utilizing so we can have more towards rent to get us into a good neighborhood.”

Part of the problem is that many of the rentals are being sold as investors swoop in with cash offers. In 2019, the median income in Duval County was $56,000, which equates to an average of about $300,000 for a home, which is the same price point investors are looking at.

“If nothing else came on the market today, everything would be gone — everything would be gone in less than a month,” Missi Howell, the president of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors, said.

She added that before 2020, less than a quarter of Florida homes would get more than one offer. However, now some realtors report one home gets as many as 15 offers.

“If you have an offer coming and there’s 15 offers, only one of those is going to win. You now have 14 buyers still looking for a home,” she explained, and added that demand drives price.

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Over the past decade, the average house in the area has doubled in cost, from $158,000 to $304,000 according to NEFAR. But the median income hasn’t followed the spike. According to the U.S. Census, it was $50,010 a decade ago and is now $54,701. Howell said the solution is more affordable houses.

An Action News Jax investigation discovered a state program designed to help increase affordable housing in Florida has repeatedly been funneled away by the legislature. It’s a process called sweeping.

A total of about $2.3 billion has been swept away from the Sadowski Fund to help balance the budget for more than the past decade. Democratic state senator Audrey Gibson said the Sadowski fund needs to go where it’s intended.

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The program is designed to help pay for the rehabilitation of old apartment buildings and homes, provide funding for families to pay housing bills, and provide incentives for home builders to create lower income housing.

“There just needs to be a better realization of all the senators and house members of the magnitude of the problem we have in terms of workforce housing,” Sen. Gibson said.

A bill to protect the fund in the most recent legislative session is now on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk to sign. It puts 50% of the Sadowski Act funds towards affordable housing and blocks the legislature from diverting any more funds. However, the other 50% goes to wastewater and sea level rise initiatives. That means for this fiscal year, only $211 of $423 million will go towards affordable housing. Sen. Gibson said she’s against removing 50% of the funds from affordable housing, which is why she voted against the bill.

“It needs to leave the money in place, and that way, we plan out for building more affordable housing and keep the projects moving,” Sen. Gibson said.

Howell said it is part of the solution, but it’s not enough. The realtor association is part of the group that pushed for more money to be kept in the fund. She said realtors will continue fighting to put people in affordable homes.