County Commissioner Phil McCroan insisted a new approach was needed for addressing the most significant issue facing the county in the rebuilding from Hurricane Michael: housing, particularly workforce housing.
During a special meeting last week, commissioners, county officials and residents discussed how to unlock the vexing puzzle of providing housing to those in need, focusing on the workforce.
“The most critical problem in this county is housing,” said Dr. Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County.
Hardman is also a contractor and heads the subcommittee on housing on the Gulf County Citizens Long-Term Recovery Committee.
She continued by noting that the housing market was making it harder and harder to find teachers, football coaches and law enforcement and correctional officers.
And, she added, those that comprise the workforce can not afford $300,000 homes, the type of development that has been taking place in the county.
“We need rental housing for the workforce,” Hardman said.
One of the most significant numbers coming out of a community needs survey last spring was the percentage of residents who are renters, not homeowners, which was nearly one in every five surveyed.
County Administrator Michael Hammond said the problem has been compounded by some property owners who, in light of the roughly 25 percent decline in the rental market inventory, as reflected in bed tax collections, are turning what might be basic rental homes into vacation rental homes.
In the city of Port St. Joe, where, McCroan noted, one can not find a rental unit for less than $1,500 a month, an amount many working people can not afford.
The issue is rippling north as housing and rental units become more scarce and expensive in recent months.
And to understand the situation, consider the number of businesses seeking employees and winter is not the height of the tourist season, Hardman has noted.
Gateway Apartments, the city’s most recent addition of affordable housing, has a rental structure that inhibits many working families that make too much money to qualify for the housing, said Joe Paul, the county’s SHIP administrator.
“We are no further down the road that we were,” McCroan said. “We’ve got to change our focus or something.”
How much impact government might have on such an issue, several officials said, is debatable.
Commissioner David Rich said the Board of County Commissioners should not forget about the private sector and noted a development recently brought to market out of bankruptcy in Wewahitchka which remains less than full.
Public/private partnerships, a land trust, stick built or mobile home, commissioners agreed to the urgency of the issue, with Hammond suggesting a workshop to bring as many parties to the table as possible.
Jason Tunnell, owner of BCC Waste Solutions, heard an earful from commissioners, staff and a couple of residents about several issues since BCC took over the county’s solid waste contract.
Most surrounded communications within BCC and residents with an issue being unable to find the appropriate person within the company to address their problems.
Commissioners said the state of the company’s trucks was a huge improvement over the prior service provider, name (Waste Pro) deliberately left out of the discussion, and that improvement had been noticed in yard debris pick-up.
But bear-resistant containers, using a hasp or some form of pressure mechanism, were needed and too many people with two containers were having just one emptied on the day of collection.
In addition, transfer station hours would need to be changed to be open Saturday once the transfer station the county is building to replace the previous station, taken down by the unnamed previous provider, is ready for operations.
In general, Commissioner Jimmy Rogers said, most of the other problems came down to communication and Tunnell pledged to make improvements.