A bill introduced by Sen. Travis Hutson (R-St. Johns) would allow counties to do exactly what affordable housing advocates have been suggesting to ease the cost burden: waive impact fees for certain projects.
In fact, Senate Bill 350 demands such action. As currently written, the bill says: “a local government may not charge an impact fee for the development or construction of housing that is affordable.”
There is no guarantee the bill will pass, but Hutson said he hasn’t encountered any resistance so far.
The reason Hutson introduced the bill, he said, was because there was some reluctance on the part of some counties to waive impact fees for affordable housing developments.
St. Johns County is one of those counties that has been wary of lawsuits and not granted waivers. (And even with the bill, there is no guarantee such action would be deemed constitutional.)
“St. Johns County does not do (waive fees) because the way that they believe the law is interpreted, and the interpretation of the law says you can’t treat one (development) differently than the other,” Hutson said. “So if you were to waive impact fees for affordable (housing), you must waive it on all housing, and, obviously, they don’t want to do that.
“While I might be amenable to amending (the language), I wanted to start here because I personally believe the more fees you put on housing, the higher the cost, and there will never be a such thing as affordable housing if you have to pay an exorbitant amount of fees.”
That’s particularly important where there is a housing shortage for those who are not high earners. Metro Market Trends information says the average resale price for a home in St. Johns County last year was $383,731. According to the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors, the median home price in St. Johns County in 2018 was $325,129.
The state defines affordable housing as: “monthly rents or monthly mortgage payments including taxes and insurance do not exceed 30 percent of that amount which represents the percentage of the median annual gross income” for low- and moderate-income residents. Low-income earners are those making up to 80 percent of the “median annual income adjusted for family size for households” within the area. For moderate-income earners, that would mean 120 percent of the median income.
Both builders and general advocates of affordable housing have often cited the county’s impact fees as impediments to the development of what some call workforce housing – homes for those in positions like law enforcement, education, construction, etc. who earn moderate incomes.
This county does have very high impact fees, which help pay for infrastructure improvements necessitated by the area’s rapid growth. Local impact fees are higher than last year at $8,840 to $16,484 for homes of 2,500 square feet or smaller, including condominiums and apartments.
With such fees in place, there’s little incentive for builders to construct small, inexpensive homes when the market for upscale homes in master-planned communities is so strong.
“Every delegation meeting I’ve had, affordable housing was one of the biggest concerns, and although we could give money to SHIP (State Housing Initiatives Partnership) and SAIL (State Apartment Incentive Loan program) to fully fund that in the state Legislature, if money’s being used on impact fees … I don’t know how you could ever build something affordable,” Hutson said.
Representing the county’s Continuum of Care, Jerry Cameron has appeared before the County Commission recently and spoke at a Chamber of Commerce event Friday to stress the importance of getting fees waived for affordable housing.
He said the solution to the affordable housing problem must come from the private sector, but the government can help by cutting down on the fees. Hutson’s bill would help with that.
“The only real solution is to come up with a system that removes the obstacles that drove the private sector out of the affordable housing industry,” Cameron said.
Bill Lazar, executive director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership, which helps secure affordable housing for county residents, said he hopes the bill, if passed, does lead to action on the part of builders in the low-cost sector.
“Maybe it opens the door for the building industry and other folks to say, ‘OK, now that part of the problem has been reduced, what can we do to address this?'” Lazar said. “I think it’s a great initiative because we’ve got to get out of the gate somehow.”Copyright © 2019, The St. Augustine Record, Stuart Korfhage. All rights reserved.