By TaMaryn Waters, Tallahassee Democrat

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, Shane Hockin said. He sunk into an oversized chair inside his Southwood apartment as his wife Angela listened and nodded in agreement.

They both work full time at Florida State University. She’s an administrative specialist; he heads a tutoring program.

They make a decent wage yet, when their rent soared an additional $255 per month, they were forced to take a hard look at their stretched finances.

We’re two professionals, and yet we’re living paycheck to paycheck, still trying to get by,” he said. “We’re saving a little bit. But I mean, I’m 50 years old and I’m probably going to work until I can’t.”

They represent a growing population of Tallahassee residents struggling to find and maintain affordable housing. And the Capital Area Justice Ministry — a network of 20 religious congregations — believes action is needed to support more affordable rental units.

A significant change will be discussed by the Intergovernmental Agency Board on whether to add affordable housing land acquisition as a new Blueprint infrastructure project. The board, which controls millions in sales tax dollars and is comprised of city and county commissioners, meets Thursday to discuss options.

While Blueprint’s staff is recommending no action due to financial constraints, board members could decide to amend the process and shuffle money from other projects to fund this area.

In the meantime, more and more residents are feeling buried by the rising cost of rent. Every time the rent goes up, it feels like more dirt piling on, getting heavier and heavier.

Rents on the rise
The Hockins got married 23 years ago. As newlyweds, they were the lucky ones and found relatively cheap rent: a one-bedroom apartment for $450 per month by the railroad tracks near Franklin Boulevard.

Later, they lived in another rental for $600 and the couple lived for nine years in another rental property that was $700 per month. They would have stayed there longer if the owner hadn’t sold it, prompting a management company to take over and raise the rent.

In 2019, they fell in love with a two-bedroom apartment with a loft in Twin Oaks, a picturesque apartment complex in Southwood where the units resemble little cottage homes.

Rent was $1,240, higher than what they paid at previous locations but worth the vaulted ceilings and a neighborhood they adore. Yet, every year, rent inched up by $50 until it recently jumped up by $255 to $1,650 per month.

From one month to the next, Angela Hockin said “it’s a lot” when she thinks about the long-term impact.

Now the couple is considering homeownership, knowing that what they can afford may not be exactly what they want.

“We’ve been trying to save everything we possibly can over the last year,” she said. “I think it might be just enough for us to have enough for the down payment and closing costs.”

In 2021, Leon County’s median wage is $18.12 per hour. A full-time employee who works year-round in the capital city can afford $942 in rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Affordability shifts, based on the wages earned. Like the Hockins, more residents with careers are feeling the rental squeeze get tighter.

That’s where the Capital Area Justice Ministry comes in. The group represents more than 4,000 congregation members, a mix of Christianity, Judaism, Unitarian Universalist and Quakers, among others.

The organization was born out of a need to bring “justice to our community” and break a cycle of poverty and violence, said Rev. AJ Mealor, pastor at Tallahassee’s Fellowship Presbyterian Church.

In 2021, individual house meetings were organized with congregation members to gain a sense of what issues impacted them most.

“The two that came to the forefront are affordable housing and gun violence,” Mealor said. “Since that time, we have been researching those two problems, talking to local leaders, talking to national experts about what works well in other places to hopefully bring those solutions in the form of a policy to advance change in our community.”

A year later, the group went to local officials and urged an evidence-based plan to reduce gun violence and increase youth civil citations and diversion programs over the arrest of youths for lesser crimes.

In addition, the group made a pitch for the Blueprint board to make affordable housing a priority supported by sales-tax revenue — which typically goes toward infrastructure projects. The affordable housing crisis, however, fueled the conversation to explore amending Blueprint’s process.

The group is focused on those who are considered “severely housing burden,” meaning anyone spending more than 50% of their income on housing costs, including utilities.

“In Leon County, we have over 16,000 families who make less than 50% of the area median income that are severely housing burdened,” said Bill Wilson, an affordable housing developer and president of Graceful Solutions.

He said the number of severely house-burdened residents is drastically higher than the number of affordable housing units built in Leon County.

“The local policies and money are going to the upper end of the income level and not to the folks who are most in need,” Wilson said. “And that’s subsidized rental housing on the low end.”

City and county programs geared toward affordable housing
The CAJM group contends most programs offered by the city and county are focused on two ends of the affordable housing spectrum.

One end commits money toward combating homelessness and the other is increasing homeownership, which they say is not likely for residents who fall at or below 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).

The group says all but one is directed towards households with 100% or 80% of the AMI, and most are targeted at owner-occupied housing.

Here’s a look at what’s offered:

  • Inclusionary Housing Ordinances: The city requires all new residential developments with 50 or more housing units to sell at least 10% of their units at an affordable price for residents who earn 100% or less AMI. The county has no comparable ordinance.
  • Construction Loans: Private developers may apply to the city for short-term subprime construction loans to build affordable single-family homes, including duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes for households earning 100% or less AMI.
  • Rehabilitation Loans: Owners of residential rental units comprising 1 to 4 unit buildings located within the city limits may apply for forgivable loans for rehabilitating the property. Rents must not exceed 30% of the renter’s annual income for households that earn 80% or less AMI. The county provides rehabilitation support only for owner-occupied homes.
  • Down Payment Assistance: Through the Tallahassee Lenders Consortium, the city offers down payment and closing cost assistance to residents who earn 80% or less AMI to purchase an affordable home. The county does not have a separate program.
  • Certification of Affordable Housing Projects: Projects certified by the city are eligible for expedited processing and technical assistance services; for consideration under special regulatory provisions; and for water and sewer connection fee waivers.
  • Rapid Rehousing: The city provides funding to support non-profit organizations that provide funding for rent, security deposits, and utilities so homeless families can be rapidly housed in an affordable unit.
  • Homelessness Prevention: The city provides funding to non-profit organizations to financially assist families in danger of becoming homeless. The agencies assist with the cost of rent and utilities so these individuals and families can stay in their homes.
  • Direct Emergency Assistance Program: The county provides short-term financial assistance for rent and utilities to qualifying households. Applications have been closed since January 23, 2023.
  • Permanent Supportive Housing: The county has provided funding for housing vouchers for formerly chronically homeless families.

Waiting and praying for relief
The Rev. E.N. Hill heard horror stories from residents struggling to find affordable housing. But then it became personal.

Hill, who identifies as non-binary and currently pastors the Unitarian Universalist Church, said life circumstances came to a head four years ago. Hill became a caretaker for their mother, who suffers from an auto-immune disease that left her paralyzed and in need of around-the-clock care. She later caught pneumonia and now needs a ventilator to breathe.

Hill and their spouse sunk their life savings into renovating a relative’s home they were renting for a short time, but were eventually evicted from by another relative who became the owner of that Havana home. Hill soon needed a job.

It was a devastating blow. The couple couldn’t find adequate work and a place they could both live so Hill’s spouse got a teaching job in Alabama. Hill stayed behind in Tallahassee to care for their mom when her nurses were unavailable, but being apart from their spouse became difficult.

Despite having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Hill struggled to land a job that could adequately pay mounting bills and get an apartment suitable for family. And that’s when the Unitarian Universalist Church called.

“I was grateful for that job because that was also the only job that followed through on calling me back,” Hill said. “I’m a 40-year-old person with 16 years prior military experience. I have a master’s of divinity and two bachelor’s degrees, like overqualified … I was ready to take a job as a garbage man just to try and provide for my family.”

A blessing and a break, the pastoral position was right on time to help Hill tread water. Hill moved into temporary housing, a furnished apartment in Frenchtown aimed at seasonal workers like traveling nurses.

But, in a mere months, Hill will be looking for housing again. The pastor said it’s hard to fathom being educated and struggling to find an affordable apartment.

“Something going to work out. I don’t know what yet. I am hopeful in that way,” said Hill, adding no one deserves to not have housing. “I really believe that there’s this story about people who can’t afford housing. There’s a story about the quality of their character, the work ethic of these people who can’t afford housing ….

“I will really want people who can make decisions to know that I, we, are everyday hard-working people with multiple degrees who are struggling to find secure jobs that meet the requirements for the housing. There are things that are needed on multiple layers, and so there’s no excuse for thinking that there’s nothing that can be done.”

View the original story here.