Luxury homes are commonplace in Collier County, which sought the guidance of a ULI Advisory Services panel to expand its supply of workforce housing.

Luxury homes are commonplace in Collier County, which sought the guidance of a ULI Advisory Services panel to expand its supply of workforce housing.

Multimillion-dollar beachfront homes, gated communities, and lavish golf courses are common in Collier County, Florida. Collier—a Gulf of Mexico–facing county near the state’s southern tip—is a popular destination for wealthy retirees and others seeking a resort-style lifestyle either part time or year round. The county, whose largest city is Naples, had the highest per-capita personal income of any county in the state in 2015.

On the flip side of Collier’s version of paradise is a problem that affluent communities across the United States are facing: a severe shortage of housing for their workforce, including hospitality professionals, nurses and other medical support personnel, restaurant and office workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, and public safety professionals—all the moderate-income workers essential to a strong functioning economy.

While local employers and engaged citizens—including ULI members—have long prioritized this issue, there has been little political support for new policies or incentives that would lead to the development of more workforce or mixed-income housing, particularly in the form of multifamily rental units. Workforce housing is defined as housing affordable to households earning between 60 and 120 percent of area median income (AMI), which in Collier County was $65,700 in 2016. Approximately 40 percent of households are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend 30 to 50 percent of their income on housing.

Panel chairman Philip Payne

Panel chairman Philip Payne.

Last year, Naples architect Stephen Hruby—an active ULI member and chair of Collier County’s affordable housing advisory committee—reached out to the ULI Advisory Services program, which was later selected by Collier County to help craft solutions to its housing affordability problem. In January, an Advisory Services panel met in Collier for a week of dialogue with stakeholders, tours of the full spectrum of housing options—from luxury homes to substandard rental properties—and analysis that led to a comprehensive set of recommendations and a detailed implementation plan. The panel report was published this month.

“This issue of workforce housing is an economically critical issue for all communities, but it is exacerbated in high-end resort communities where the people who do the work necessary for the community to exist can’t afford to live there,” said panel chair Philip Payne, chief executive officer of the Charlotte, North Carolina–based firm Ginkgo Residential. Payne is a ULI governing trustee and a ULI Foundation governor.

The panel offered a menu of strategies for Collier County to increase and strengthen its workforce housing supply. These include:

  • a dedicated housing trust fund, better development incentives to stimulate multifamily development, repurposing vacant land and underused retail space, and bolder strategies such as inclusionary zoning or a community land trust;
  • maintaining existing supply by incentivizing refurbishment or purchasing properties at risk of losing their affordability;
  • updating land development codes to encourage development in already urbanized areas, reducing parking standards, and allowing single-family homeowners to build and rent out accessory dwelling units;
  • permitting greater densities in urban infill sites and high-activity areas to give workers access to transit, jobs, and amenities;
  • streamlining approvals for mixed-income projects;
  • adding two at-large seats to the five-person county commission to diversify perspectives or eliminate the requirement to have a super-majority approval of projects;
  • enhancing transportation options for workers such as park-and-ride systems and bus rapid transit;
  • identifying sites for multifamily development along transportation corridors, including defunct commercial or retail properties that could be converted into residential uses;
  • embarking on a public education campaign to dispel myths of what affordable—particularly workforce—housing is and isn’t and effectively marketing workforce housing options, launching so-called YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) campaigns, developing creative community engagement strategies, and hiring dedicated staff to implement these campaigns and strategies; and
  • considering enhancing wages for government employees or raising the minimum wage.
Moderately-priced housing is limited in Collier County. The panel observed multiple cars parked at a moderately-priced home, suggesting its occupants may not be able to rent or buy on their own.

Moderately priced housing is limited in Collier County. The panel observed multiple cars parked at a moderately-priced home, suggesting its occupants may not be able to rent or buy on their own.

During their weeklong engagement, panelists heard anecdotally of workers contending with long commutes and the local school district struggling to retain teachers who are unable to afford to live in Collier County on their salaries. “A significant number of county employees live in Lee County, the next county over,” Payne said. “That puts a burden on their roads, a burden on their employee base, and makes residents vulnerable when a major storm or hurricane hits since police, medical, and emergency personnel have to drive in from elsewhere.”

The panel report notes that Collier County loses tax revenue to neighboring jurisdictions when its workforce chooses to live elsewhere. “[O]ut-of-county employees tend to spend a greater portion of their income . . . going to grocery stores, restaurants, and dry cleaners in their residential communities.” Collier County’s road and infrastructure will continue to be strained without the benefit of tax revenue to support them, the report explains.

The shortage of affordable housing options “has been plaguing this community for 20 years,” Hruby, founding partner of Architects Unlimited, said. Private sector employers, social services organizations, housing advocates, and even the local chamber of commerce have reached consensus over the years that the lack of affordable options for workers is a threat to Collier County’s prosperity and creates a brain drain of local talent. In fact, in the mid-2000s, an earlier group of ULI members recommended that the Collier County government take steps to diversify its housing stock and allow developers to build at higher densities. At the time, the board of commissioners was not ready to embrace either idea.

“We couldn’t hire staff, we couldn’t retain staff—it was a huge barrier for economic development,” Hruby said.

Now, county commissioners face mounting pressure from local employers to create more housing for middle-income households. The county is seriously considering several of the panel’s recommendations, with county staff working on a plan to present to commissioners in September.

ULI member Stephen Hruby

ULI member Stephen Hruby.

“The ULI panel’s work served as validation of the need and the most likely strategies that could address housing needs in our community,” said Kim Grant, director of the county’s community and human services administration. “The panel provided a very credible framework within which our commission could select the most promising ideas and implement them at the local level.”

Specific proposals under consideration include the following: the creation of both a housing trust fund and a community land trust; modification of the land development code to raise density requirements in specific areas; and the creation of a “one-stop shop” for marketing workforce housing to consumers and educating the public about what workforce housing is and who it serves.

“The most significant need is a change in the development paradigm,” Hruby said. “This community has been very single-family, homeownership-focused. There is a huge pent-up demand for rental and multifamily housing that has not been addressed. The paradigm is slowly shifting to create a more diverse development market, and there is growing awareness of the need to house service and moderate-income workers. This time, the issue won’t be stonewalled.”

Read the full ULI Advisory Services panel report on Collier County’s workforce housing strategy