County tries to find solutions on ongoing affordable housing crisis

Cameron Preserve, a new 100-unit affordable housing complex, opened in Osceola County in April, but officials said more has to be done.

The top 14 industries in Osceola County – including cashiers, waiters, security guards, office clerks and nursing assistants – all make an average of $15 or less an hour.

Yet, a new study shows that a single person in Osceola County needs to make at least $17.92 an hour to afford a studio apartment and $19.31 to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

That might be why the annual report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition is called “Out of Reach.” Forty percent of all residents in Osceola County are renters, but people are having a difficult time finding housing that doesn’t leave them cost burdened – a term used to describe when people spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities.

The job market has a big impact on how affordable housing is for the average Osceola County renter, said Danicka Ransom, assistant director of Osceola County Human Services.

Ransom oversees programs such as Section Eight and other workings in Osceola County that receive federal funding.

“How much people are earning just doesn’t match up with Fair Market Value rates,” Ransom said. “Those jobs just generally don’t pay much.”

She said many of her clients work in the hospitality and tourism industry, where wages average between $9 and $13 an hour. There are also seniors and people with disabilities who find it difficult to pay for housing on limited fixed incomes.

Minimum wage earners in the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford area must work 85 hours a week to afford a basic studio apartment at Florida’s rate of $8.46 an hour. And that’s the cheapest scenario, the report stated. To afford a one-bedroom apartment, people need to work an average of 91 hours a week.

Local government can’t make the tourism industry pay employees a living wage, but county officials say they’re trying to find cheaper alternatives in the meantime.

Studio apartments could be a more economical option for single people and couples in Osceola County, so staff is working to ease coding and zoning laws for auxiliary structures like sheds, garage apartments and mother-in-law suites.

“Not everyone needs a ton of space,” said Susan Caswell, assistant community development administrator for Osceola County. “We’re trying to increase housing options for all residents.”

To keep costs low for homeowners, the county doesn’t charge impact fees on auxiliary housing units.

“We’ve made these restrictions much more flexible since 2017 to help create more alternative options out there in our market,” Caswell said.

The Fair Market Rate for studio apartments is now $932 a month, and a one bedroom costs an average of $1,004. Rents for these housing types in Osceola County average $50 to $90 more than the state average, something Caswell attributes to the area’s historical emphasis on larger family dwellings.

“For years, homes and three-bedroom and larger units were really common,” she said. “Now we’re seeing millennials and seniors who want something smaller and more affordable.”

The county is also working with the Osceola County School District to reduce school impact fees on studio apartments.

Osceola County staffers argued that these small dwellings (less than 550 square feet) generate so few public school students, developers shouldn’t be charged as much in impact fees by the School District.

Caswell proposed reducing fees on studios to $552 per unit – about half of what the fee is now - at an April 16 workshop meeting.

The idea is to make it more affordable to build these units so that developers will construct more of them.  

Caswell said she received a mixed response from school board members.

Some worried about carving out an additional exception after exempting vacation villa from impact fees last year.

The school board may not be ready to reduce impact fees on studio apartments – yet – but may look at each request from a developer on a case-by-case basis.  

The school board is set to re-examine the issue in July.