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How long will Brevard County wait until rising rental costs become a crisis?

How long will Brevard County wait until rising rental costs become a crisis?

"Affordable housing crisis" might sound like a San Francisco or New York City problem, not something Brevard County —  the kind of place where you don't have to be a millionaire to live near the beach — has to worry about. 

Perhaps for those of us earning enough or long-time homeowners, it isn't. But, as FLORIDA TODAY's Bailey Gallion reported this week, Brevard's low-income families are struggling to keep up with rising rents and some are losing their place to live.

That's a side effect of our prosperity as we welcome high-income residents who are driving up prices.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Nonprofits and advocates for the homeless have been sounding the alarm for years, with stories of families living out of their cars or couch surfing after suddenly being displaced by skyrocketing rents. 

There are several efforts, led mainly by nonprofits, to increase affordable housing, including a taskforce made up of local leaders and new units being built south of U.S. Route 192 by nonprofit Carrfour Supportive Housing.

But the same level of attention isn't coming from our County Commission and local governments as has been dedicated, rightfully so, for the Indian River Lagoon.

In fact, the county is phasing out funding for nonprofits, including those that help homeless families find housing such as Family Promise of Brevard. The organization has seen a 58% increase in the number of calls of people struggling to afford rent since last year.

Between 2017 and 2018, rent values went up by 15% in the county, an unprecedented increase, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2019, the fair market rent value for a two-bedroom unit went down $18 to $1,000 per month. 

As of 2016, Brevard needed 11,500 housing units for the working poor, according to a study by the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Housing Studies. Get the Florida Voices newsletter in your inbox.

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We should look at what's happening next door to us as a warning sign. The Orlando metro area had the nation's worst housing shortage this year for people earning up to $24,600, beating cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Houston, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

We shouldn't act surprised when more displaced Orlando renters move to our area only to make our housing problems worse. 

Volunteers deliver care packages and beanies to homeless camps in Palm Bay.

Volunteers deliver care packages and beanies to homeless camps in Palm Bay. (Photo: Provided)

Here's a low-hanging fruit Brevard could tackle: Nonprofit developers want to build cheap housing but cannot find land that's large enough or zoned as multi-family, according to Gallion's reporting.

Fixing this issue is not rocket science, but it does require will power.

We have shown with the Indian River Lagoon that we can work together to solve some of our direst problems. Yet the people affected by rising rental costs aren't waterfront homeowners, boaters, local leaders or the primary voters who decide elections on the Space Coast. 

Helping the working poor is often viewed in our county as "socialism" or handouts. That fails to recognize we all pay when people end up homeless. A 2016 Leadership Brevard project estimated homelessness costs the county nearly $28 million a year in incarceration, prosecution, education, law enforcement and mostly health-care costs. 

We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Let's begin by looking at what other communities are doing:

  • San Diego allows developers to build at higher density if a number of units are reserved for low-income tenants, according to Forbes magazine.
  • Atlanta allows developers to apply for tax abatements from the city for up to 10 years if they can prove their project wouldn't be feasible without government funding, and if at least 20% of units are reserved for people earning up to 60% of the area's median income, Forbes reported.

I want to be fair to the Space Coast. The Legislature has made it harder for local communities to address this problem.

In the early 1990s, the Legislature passed the Sadowski Act. The law increased real estate transaction taxes and dedicated that extra revenue to an affordable housing trust fund. However, for the last decade, lawmakers have raided those funds to pay for other expenses in the state budget.

More than $2 billion statewide have been diverted that could have been distributed across the state to build more housing, help homeowners with down payments and to assist low-income households. 

Brevard has lost more than $25 million since 2013, according to data provided by the county.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne filed a bill that died this year to stop the Legislature from raiding the Sadowski fund. Orlando Rep. Rene Plasencia, who represents northern Brevard, was a co-sponsor of the House version. Both are Republicans, proof that affordable housing isn't just a liberal concern. 

Even Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended the Sadowski fund be completely funded, but signed into law a state budget that diverted money from the fund, albeit less than in previous years. 

The Space Coast can hope Tallahassee comes to our rescue in the next legislative session. Or we can be proactive. 

Which one is it going to be?