Commission Corner: Addressing homelessness in Palm Beach County

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By: County Commissioner Robert Weinroth Dist. 4 Special to the Boca Newspaper

Homelessness in Palm Beach County? Unfortunately the answer is yes.

For many of us, South Florida is our slice of paradise. When compared to the cost of living in the northeast, South Florida is downright reasonable. But for many, notwithstanding the relative reasonableness of living expenses, they still place the ability to afford a decent place to live out of reach.

It is estimated that a person would need to earn an annual salary of over $57,000 to afford a two bedroom apartment in Palm Beach County where the average rent is around $1,400 per month. Add in utilities, and other routine household expenses and that apartment will cost no less than $20,000 a year.

Since 2011, the County’s median family income has increased about 20 percent while the median sales price of a single-family home has increased 83 percent.

In 2017, nearly 40 percent of all households in the County spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. The problem is much more acute for renters who spend, on average, over 50 percent of their gross income on housing.

Recently, the “tent city” located in John Prince Park has garnered a good deal of attention. The County has dispatched employees to the encampment to assess the needs of the individuals living there.

The County has four homeless outreach teams to facilitate this effort. We also maintain a robust partnership with the Health Care District to provide medical care for the homeless through an on-site clinic at the Lewis Center (which has 60 beds) and a mobile health care unit.

In addition to the Lewis Center, the Board of County Commissioners recently gave its approval to the construction of a second homeless resource center (HRC2) and is already discussing the need for a third in the western portion of he County.

The County, in partnership with the development community, has required new projects to set aside up to 25 percent of the new housing as “workforce housing” units.

Between 2017 and 2019 over 1,600 housing units were created through new construction, acquisition, rehabilitation and foreclosure prevention. However, this is truly a drop in the bucket as demand keeps increasing as the gap between wages and rents continues to widen.

In 1991, the Florida Home Builders Association and Florida Realtors intent on creating jobs in the housing construction industry and getting more low and moderate income families into home ownership, respectively, asked the Florida Legislature to increase the transfer fee on all real property transactions and dedicate that increment to the state and local housing trust funds.

The Sadowski Fund, officially the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, was created as a dedicated source of revenue to help pay for local and state housing programs across Florida.

The proceeds of the Fund were supposed to be split roughly 70/30 between local governments, for programs offering down-payment assistance to homeowners and to pay for repairs to existing housing, and state programs that help fund affordable-housing development.

Unfortunately, the funds have been swept and used for other legislative priorities on a regular basis. Last year, Palm Beach County should have received $17 million from the trust but ultimately only received $2 million!

Since 2003, the fund has been continually raided with $2 billion diverted away from the housing programs it was created to address.

Palm Beach County has seen over $200 million that should have been dedicated to affordable/workforce housing reallocated by the state.

Against this backdrop, the Board of County Commissioners is considering the possibility of placing on he November ballot a proposal to issue $150 million in General Obligation Bonds. The proceeds of those bonds would be dedicated to workforce and affordable housing and to address homelessness.

However, with respect to homelessness, it is clear a broader approach is necessary to address its causes. In many instances, the seeds of homelessness are sewn in elementary school with literacy being the clearest indicator of success or failure as early as the end of third grade.

Absent an ability to read at grade level upon completing third grade, students will be scholastically handicapped. Up until that point in time, the students learn to read. Thereafter, the paradigm shifts and the students read to learn.

Deficient reading skills create deficient learning ability. Over 50 percent of our students in Palm Beach County do not meet this milestone.

Coupled with an effort to improve literacy is a concerted effort to attract high paying jobs to our county. Again, with the cost of housing outpacing the increases in wages, we must work to address that disparity.

These are not issues that will be easily cured. But, we can improve incrementally and with those improvements the financial pressure on individuals trying to afford a place to live will ease.