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Here's How The Cost Of Living In Palm Beach County Is Impacting The Housing Market

Less than a week before Valentine’s Day, a blue Toyota Corolla sat in a Publix parking lot just off Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton. A woman in her mid-40s was in the back seat, sandwiched between her two young children. With the sun peering in and shoppers walking by, the family flipped through a picture book as if they were sitting on a living room couch.

“I could tell she was living in her car with the amount of stuff that was around them,” says Lisa Sussman, 45, a founding board member of Starz Foundation, a Palm Beach County-based organization that supports women, children and families. “We were both in Boca and her children looked to be about the same age as my own. But our lives couldn’t be any more different.”

Sussman rushed inside Publix to buy the family a gift card. When she returned, the woman was gone.

“She is the face of many,” Sussman says. “I don’t know her exact situation, but I do know that it’s time to find a solution for affordable and workforce housing. We have to take care of everybody, not just people living behind the big gates.”

Affordable and workforce housing in South Florida, including Palm Beach County, has long been a problem. It’s one of the most cost-burdened metropolitan regions in the nation when comparing the increasing gap between low wages and high cost of housing, according to the Coordinating Council of Broward.

That’s why more than 500 government officials, lenders and builders attended an affordable housing summit in Palm Beach County last spring.

During the conference, it was reported that the median gross rent was about $1,900, which is unaffordable for 80 percent of renters, according to the Palm Beach Post. Single-family homes, for which the median price was about $327,000 last year, are out of reach for 75 percent of county residents. From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of homeowners in the county dropped by 1.6 percent. During that same time, the percentage of renters climbed by almost 25 percent, according to the Post.

Organizations like the Starz Foundation and Crisis Housing Solutions say container housing might remedy the housing crisis.

“For a community to be sustainable, it must supply adequate housing types at different values,” explains Edward Murray, associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. “That goes for every age group, including millennials, empty nesters and seniors. Right now, we’re failing.”

Among metropolitan areas with a population above one million, the Miami market, which includes Palm Beach, had the highest percentage of renters spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing, according to the 2017 America’s Rental Housing Report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Right now, there is about a 70-percent deficit in supply of affordable housing for households earning less than the Area Median Income (AMI). That number increases to about an 87 percent deficit for households earning less than $38,460, which is 60 percent below the AMI.

“I live in Boca,” Murray says. “I have two college-aged daughters who will not come back here because it’s so expensive.”

South Florida’s housing issue goes far beyond those who are out of work or living in poverty. It’s teachers, police officers, firefighters, journalists, bank workers and other service-oriented professions.


“If you think about it, it’s actually a huge portion of our population,” says Nancy Robin, CEO and executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Broward. “They’re suffering from being cost-burdened.”

For centuries, companies supplied workforce housing for employees, Murray says. But over the last few decades, companies and cities have detached their thinking when it comes to workers and where they are living. Consequently, we’re pricing out entry-level workers and even those at mid and senior levels, he says.

“The market is completely out of reach for many who live and work here,” Murray says.

Robin says South Florida has reached full-blown crisis mode.

“It’s the perfect storm,” she says. “Rising land costs, construction costs and interest rates. In severely cost-burdened areas like South Florida, you’re just a hiccup away from other major problems, like homelessness and other issues that come from not having adequate housing.”

As for a solution, some South Florida-based organizations, including Starz Foundation and Davie-based Crisis Housing Solutions, want people to, quite literally, think inside the box.

“It’s all about container housing,” says Craig Vanderlaan, executive director of Crisis Housing Solutions, a housing support agency. “Right now, we’re working on a prototype of a container home unit and we’re expecting to secure a multifamily container project somewhere in Florida in 2019.”


Vanderlaan discovered the concept of shipping containers as livable structures in the Netherlands, where he visited a student-housing project made entirely using steel containers.

“They’ve done studies that show it’s cheaper than traditional construction,” says Ed O’Sheehan, an attorney at Shutts & Bowen who represents Crisis Housing. “By leveraging their non-profit status and receiving donations of free and reduced-price containers, they’re hoping to build one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for 25 to 33 percent less than the going rate.”

Sussman, who was recently named Mrs. Elite Florida Woman of Achievement for her commitment to creating solutions for South Florida’s homeless and cost-burdened, is focused on container homes, too.

“Right now, we’re acquiring land in Royal Palm Beach to create a container housing community,” she says. “What we’re looking to do is offer housing at a much lower price.”

“Shipping containers aren’t the only solution,” Vanderlaan adds. “But they’re a start. We have to get creative with our approach if we want to find solutions that stick.”

Then there’s organizations like Carrfour, a leading affordable and supportive housing program in South Florida that develops, operates and manages affordable housing communities with support services. The organization recently received approval for projects in West Palm Beach and Wilton Manors, according to David Coviello, an attorney at Shutts & Bowen who represents the organization.


“It takes a village, and this problem won’t be solved with just one solution,” Robin says. “Everyone is looking to new technology and cheaper ways to build as a way to solve this problem. And that’s great, but it’s also time that we do more in terms of putting aside land for affordable housing and not looking to make millions of dollars on every single piece of land.”

Before anything, Murray says it’s important for the population to recognize that there is an issue.

“There’s a choir out there that understands what’s going on,” he says. “But I’m not sure if it’s something that the general public realizes.

Affordable housing affects us all in different ways. South Florida is up against the odds. It’s going to take some level of public-private partnership that we haven’t seen before. As we are right now, we’re not economically resilient and we’re not building sustainable communities. No matter who you are, that’s a big issue for everyone.”