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Over 37 percent of households ‘burdened’ by housing costs

Posted on Saturday, October 28, 2017 at 6:00 am

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series as the News-Gazette takes a look at affordable housing Osceola County.
By Rachel Christian
Staff Writer
A call for more affordable housing is a familiar rally cry in Osceola County.
But for resident Florence Chaab, the issue hits close to home.
Chaab, a native New Yorker, said rent was much lower when she first moved to Kissimmee 16 years ago.
“It’s not that way now, though,” she said as she waited for her bus home from work one rainy Monday evening. “The rent keeps going up, but what I get paid can’t keep up anymore.”
Chaab works full time as a dispatch operator at a Kissimmee resort, while her recently retired husband collects a modest monthly Social Security check.
They lived in an apartment off U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee for over a decade, but after the couple became caretakers for several of their grandchildren, they needed more room.
Chaab said housing in the city has become so expensive that she and her family had to move to a cheaper apartment in Poinciana three weeks ago.
Still, the working class resident estimated that about 75 percent of her paycheck goes to rent and utilities.
“We didn’t want to move all the way out to Poinciana,” said Chaab, whose public transit commute home averages about two hours. “But if we can barely afford where we just moved to, how were we ever going to stay where we were?”
Chaab and her husband pay $1,300 a month for the four-bedroom apartment they share with their six relatives and grandchildren.
Chaab’s story isn’t unique. The population of Poinciana has exploded as new and existing residents flock to the unincorporated area to seek relief from skyrocketing rent prices. The influx strains the community’s infrastructure, schools and other resources.
The exact meaning of the term “affordable housing,” and what role it will play in future development projects, remains unclear to many – including government officials.
The term is defined by the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies as a dwelling where the total cost of rent and utilities is less than 40 percent of the household income.
Over 37 percent of households in Osceola County – including Chaab’s – are considered “cost burdened” by housing expenses, according to a Shimberg Center study released earlier this month.
In many ways, the study helps quantify a reality many already face each day– that over a third of the residents in one of Central Florida’s fastest-growing counties are burdened by high housing costs.
The task of finding solutions to Osceola County’s increased growing pains have fallen on local government leaders.
Discussions on the subject turned heated at an Oct. 16 County Commission meeting when Commissioner Fred Hawkins proposed a slowdown to certain building projects.
“We’ve done nothing about it,” Hawkins said at the meeting. “It’s a call for extreme measures.”
With some exceptions, the Hawkins’ proposal could put the brakes on most project applications not listed on the Nov. 2 Planning Commission agenda.
Hawkins’ proposal will go up for vote before the Commission Monday night. It would put other measures in place for six months including increased fees for developers, the creation of a county-wide street design and updates to building standards that aim to prevent sub-par “express homes” from
being built.
But curbing the creation of expensive residential homes isn’t the same as developing housing for people like Chaab who earn $10 to $15 an hour.
To do that, Commissioner Chairman Brandon Arrington said local government must be firm with developers about erecting structures that best serve the needs of those already living in the county.
“Single family homes that retail for $200,000 or $300,000 don’t work for everyone,” Arrington said. “We have to find builders who are willing to build the way we want them to.”
Introducing mixed-use developments, courtyard style apartments, duplexes and micro-housing units that range from 450 to 600 square feet are options that have been discussed at recent meetings.
Short-term solutions include revising current codes to make it easier for homeowners to rent rooms and small structures on their property to non-family members.
Commissioner Cheryl Grieb said she is sympathetic to the housing needs of Osceola’s struggling residents, but wasn’t sure that pausing projects would resolve the issue.
“I think certain aspects of this possible moratorium need to be outlined and defined more clearly,” she said. “I think there are measures we can take without having to put a stop to everything for a while.”
Grieb said that focusing on improving both public and higher education in the area will help lead to better paying jobs for more people down the road.
Ultimately, Grieb and Arrington said the market will determine how much consumers pay for housing, not local government.
“A lot of people want to live in Central Florida, so real estate values and rent prices are going to reflect that,” Arrington said. “For that reason, I don’t foresee rent getting cheaper anytime soon.”