The ball is rolling on bringing in affordable housing, said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett, but residents shouldn’t expect contracts to be signed anytime soon.
Last Tuesday, city commissioners gathered to hear pitches from two potential candidates to build affordable housing on a lot that has been designated for the project for years.
Now, the mayor said, each commissioner has been asked to present their visions for the project so a more complete plan can be presented to the two builders and decisions can be made.
“We’ve got to make a decision of which one we’d like to deal with, but that’s still down the road,” Buzzett said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not a knee jerk reaction. We’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through before this transpires.”
Royal American, out of Panama City, and Oikos, out of Kansas City, are competing for the contract, which would allow them to build on the 50-acre lot given to the city by the St. Joe Company.
Buzzett said that lacking affordable housing has been an ongoing issue in Gulf County, especially since Hurricane Michael, when the number of available homes decreased and costs of homeowners insurance and repairs skyrocketed.
An increasing number of rental properties on the market have been designated exclusively as vacation properties for tourists, of whom there has been a surge in recent years.
According to Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition, tourism has become a vital part of the county’s economy over the past several decades, replacing jobs that vacated after several large employers left town about 20 years ago.
“That has helped our economy, and it’s helped us survive,” he said. “But from an economic standpoint the base has to get bigger.”
Job growth has been slow but steady in Gulf County, and the unemployment rate has been dropping since it spiked due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. However, several businesses have said they are struggling to hire.
Many have suggested the lack of affordable housing, among other factors, might be behind some of employers’ struggles to find workers at lower salaries, despite overall job growth.
Buzzett has noticed a particular shortage in service and construction workers.
“We’re big in the service industry now, and especially with construction and recovery going on,” he said. “Most of those folks are living out outside the city, and of course we will continue to be a service industry for years to come because of tourism, and so we need to have a place that folks can go that they can afford to rent, or own for that matter.”
Of the 50 designated acres, only about 30 have been deemed high and dry enough for building homes, the mayor said. He believes this will be plenty of room to accommodate the city’s needs.
The mayor said he hopes to have design and funding issues resolved and contracts signed by the end of the year.
“It takes a while,” he said. “Funding is a big issue for these companies because they rely on HUD funding and affordable housing funding through the state and federal. So, it’s just a matter of how they can put their package together. We look forward to working with them and hope it works.”