SARASOTA, Fla. — Sarasota is the land of pristine sandy beaches, soaring high rises and beautiful weather, along with some of the wealthiest people in Florida and some of the poorest.
According to Sarasota County, the median age for people is 57.3 years old. Throughout the pandemic, many retirees decided to settle in Sarasota, cashing out big on 401Ks, stocks, and retirements savings.
But, according to Jon Thaxton, Senior Vice President at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a civic advocacy group, the windfall for some during the pandemic hasn't been the same for the working class.
"We have almost 20,000 households in Sarasota County that spend more than 50% of their income on housing. So we have 20,000 households in Sarasota County that are one paycheck or $700 away from losing the house that they're in," Thaxton said. "We've done a really good job of building the market homes and the retirement homes. But, we've done a pathetic job of building the homes that are affordable to the people working at or near minimum wage."
Thaxton doesn't put any of the blame on an older population moving to Florida.
"I think it would be more appropriate to say what's the blame, rather than who's to blame, and it's the market that is to blame," Thaxton said.
Thaxton said the current market hasn't helped make affordable housing profitable, especially during this hot housing and rental market, and the divide between the rich and the poor is growing.
"I would argue that we are already seeing, and I would characterize Sarasota as a tale of two cities, and those that are in that category of the working poor, working two or three jobs just to stay ahead. The booming economy has not helped them. The cost of living including has skyrocketed, and their wages have remained functionally stagnant."
Thaxton calls for more low-income tax credits, affordable housing trust funds, more accessible entitlement programs for developers, and help from the private sector.
"People that have been in this community for generations can no longer afford to keep the properties that were in their family for years," Thaxton said. "And, those that go off to school cannot afford to come back and work here because of the price of the cost of housing."
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska also met with the CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority William Russell.
"So, this is one of the biggest issues facing Sarasota right now is affordable housing?" Paluska asked.
"I think it is," Russell responded.
"Think you can fix it?" Paluska said.
"It's gonna be tough," Russell said.
Russell said everyone is feeling the squeeze.
"When people think of affordable housing, they think of low-income people. But, you know, a teacher making $45,000 if they're paying half of what they make for their housing costs. That's unaffordable, like they're severely cost-burdened. And, so that's an affordable housing issue too."
Russell said they have four affordable housing projects in the works. Two are nearing completion, and another is for people who serve and protect people every day.
"We're going to build 52 apartments for what we call Hometown Heroes. So teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, you know, people who provide a critical service in this community, and they cannot afford to live in the community," Russell said. "So, we're going to make those units. We're prioritizing them for them and making it affordable for them."
Russell said the four projects aren't even enough to keep up with demand. He said they have to find a way to make building affordable housing affordable and, more importantly, profitable. He calls for leaders and the community to consider housing as critical infrastructures like any essential utility like sewer, water, trash, and electricity.
"Affordable housing does not get the attention it needs. It is a really big challenging issue to solve, and there is no silver bullet to solve it," Russell said. "I firmly believe that affordable housing or housing affordability is part of the economic infrastructure. People, I mean, for this economy to work, people have to be able to afford to live here. And, you know, if we can't hire teachers and nurses, and you know, bank tellers, and people to cut hair and, and pool cleaners, landscapers. The economy doesn't work."
The Sarasota Housing Authority also offers landlords a $750 incentive if they agree to house a family in their program, receiving help through section-8 funds. But, there are still more than 150 vouchers not getting used.
"People are having a really difficult time using those vouchers right now. Because it's dependent upon a private landlord accepting the voucher," Russell said. "And then we go out, and we inspect the unit, make sure it's safe, habitable. And then we sign a contract with the landlord that we're going to subsidize the difference between what your rent is that we would approve and what the tenant can afford, the family can afford, right? And then we wire into their bank account on the first of every month. But in this market, it's such a hot market that landlords don't need, and sometimes don't want section eight right now."
Affordable housing is an issue impacting every part of the Tampa Bay region. Leaders say we have to get it right in Sarasota, so the rest of the country has a road map to follow.
"Our age demographic is about 15 years ahead of the rest of the nation, where we're kind of this petri dish," Thaxton said. "What are going to be the needs of this aging demographic? And what kind of housing are they going to need? What kind of transportation are they going to need? What kind of health care are they going to need? And so, I mean, if we could get it right here in Southwest Florida, in Sarasota County, it would be a benefit to the entire nation, because soon the vast majority of the cities in this country are going to be faced with the same challenges."