By Sandra Averhart, WUWF

Two years after identifying affordable housing as a top priority, JUST Pensacola hosted a summit Tuesday night, specifically focused on the crisis of affordable ‘rental’ housing in the Pensacola area.

The goal of the gathering was to create a common understanding of the local need and potential ways to move forward to solve the crisis. Leaders of the interfaith coalition have declared it a success.

“It was absolutely wonderful, it was productive, energetic, and educational,” proclaimed Marion Bennett, co-president of JUST Pensacola, which stands for Justice United Seeking Transformation. “We had over 200 diverse residents from across Pensacola, coming to hear what the crisis in affordable rental housing is all about and what some of the solutions might be.”

Bennett said the summit actually exceeded her expectations. Although no actions were expected and none were taken, housing experts who were invited to speak provided educational information to help the community attain a greater understanding of the issue locally and how it can be addressed.

“Anne Ray, for example, was able to put into sort of dollars and cents what it means to be in a crisis for affordable housing,” said Bennett. “Some people are spending more than 30% and maybe even more than 50% of their income on housing. And that those who are experiencing this kind of lopsided, budgetary crisis are those usually earning the least.”

Ray has been keeping tabs on the situation as manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearing House at the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

“In Escambia County, there are over 16,000 households who are renters who earn below 50% area median income, so below that $32,000 to $45,000 mark, and who are paying more than 30% of their income for their housing,” Ray explained, adding that there are more than 9,500 owners who fall into that category.

Put another way in terms of affordability, Ray looks at what a single person working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, would need to earn to be able to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment at fair market rate.

“So, Escambia County’s housing wage is a little over $22 an hour, but the median wage in the county is about $20 an hour,” said Ray.

As director of the Center’s statewide Rental Market Study, Ray is also aware of the current affordable rental housing inventory locally.

“Over the past decade or so, we actually increased the supply of rental housing, more than 5,000 rental units have been added in Escambia County. But all of that increase and more has been in units that rent for more than $1,200 a month,” Ray said. “So we do have some new rental supply, but it’s out of reach for the type of workers that the community attracts.”

Currently, the two counties of Escambia and Santa Rosa have a 5,000-unit deficit. Broken down, that’s just over 3,000 in Escambia outside city limits, 862 in Pensacola, and almost 1,000 in Santa Rosa.

Ray suggests the community address the situation by building a local affordable housing system made up of three interconnected parts that include supportive housing for those with the greatest need for housing stability, building more affordable housing units, and finding ways to support affordable home ownership.

For those who want to buy, providing low-interest financing is a good place to start, she said.

“Foreclosure prevention services to keep people in their homes, rehab assistance to make homes more sound, more weatherized and more climate resistant, and mostly down payment assistance to individuals looking to get into home ownership,” Ray added.

Another speaker, Ali Ankudowich, representing the Florida Housing Coalition detailed some best practices and shared opportunities from across the state, putting much emphasis on the state’s Live Local Act, a comprehensive attainable housing strategy.

In terms of funding, she says state and federal dollars are available.

“We have competitive funding often going toward the actual development or rehabilitation of housing,” said Ankudowich.
“We also have some major one-off allocations. Unfortunately, this is tied to dire circumstances such as a global pandemic or a hurricane that’s blown through.”

Additionally, local infrastructure sales taxes can be used to acquire land for development of affordable housing units. Already in use is the establishment of Community Redevelopment Areas or CRAs. And already proposed by JUST Pensacola – and rejected thus far by Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves – is creation of a local affordable housing trust fund.

Unlike last year, Mayor Reeves attended the JUST Pensacola summit to provide an update on affordable housing initiatives in the city.

He said in the last year-and-a-half, the city has requested close to $20 million for affordable housing to include $7 million to redevelop the old Baptist Hospital property.

“And, what we really envision for that place is a mixed-income housing opportunity where the sons and daughters of our lawyers and our doctors can grow up next to the sons and daughters of our custodians and people making minimum wage,” said Reeves.

Additionally, Reeves said the city has received two letters of interest to develop affordable housing at the Pensacola Motor Lodge property. Also, he noted a partnership with the Homebuilders Association to build affordable homes on donated property, such as the Malcolm Yonge property, that will go into the city’s land trust.

“We can develop a minimum of 14 units, perhaps more there,” explained the mayor. “Our intent is we will be putting out a disposition of that property that will require that it stay in a community land trust, which means it will stay affordable forever.”

But more important than the details of different projects in the city or how to address the crisis is what Reeves said to close his presentation to the JUST Pensacola audience.

“Myself and this organization, we rise above principle to try to figure out what’s best for this community and we are aligned in that,” declared Reeves. “We’re aligned in understanding that this is our greatest need. Other than keeping you safe when you leave here tonight, the next important thing is trying to house people here.”

These are the words members of the JUST Pensacola coalition were waiting to hear.

“We’ve always been in agreement — the mayor and JUST — that there is a crisis for sure,” said Bennett. “We can’t solve it tomorrow. We wish we could, but it’s going to take a while and it’s going to take a concerted effort on the part, of everyone.”

View the original story here.