Public-Private Partnerships should benefit more of the public and less of the private

After clearing the first hurdle creating Rural Lifestyle as an addition to the comp plan, the Martin County Board of County Commissioners presented on Facebook a very poorly timed announcement about the new trauma helicopter.

This helicopter is a private/public partnership with LifeStar, meaning tax dollars paid by us to are used to partner with a private company to provide services to us, should we need it. As with any medical situation, there is a possibility a bill could be presented after service is provided, which could result in a payment by one’s health insurance or by self-pay. The gist is that the partnership exists for the benefit of residents of Martin County.

So that got us thinking… why doesn’t Martin County or the City of Stuart do something about the housing shortage and crisis? Is there a private/public partnership that could exist to help with that?

If your first response is “Well, they approved so much housing so it will be addressed,” this post is definitely for you.

One of the big selling points used by the developers has been that they will allocate a certain percentage of the units as “affordable housing.” And before you scoff at the idea of (gasp) affordable housing being in our community, let’s dive into what is determined to be “affordable” in Martin County.

To start, you should know that a County or City cannot mandate the cost of rent from a developer. If they do, the developer or landlord can charge the County or City for the difference in what is asked for regarding a rental rate and what the developer can get as market rate. So if the County or City says to charge $750 and the developer says market rate is $1,000, the developer can basically bill the County or City for the $250 difference per unit.

But what is “affordable” in Florida and Martin County?

As of 2021, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Florida is the 12th most expensive state in which someone needs to make a specific income, $24.82 an hour in Florida, to afford a 2-bedroom at fair market value.

Martin County is comprised of 14,167 renters. Currently that is 22% of the Martin County population.

Minimum wage in Martin County is $8.65 per hour. That means that one person working minimum wage can afford rent at a cost of $450 a month.

However, the stated fair market value of a one-bedroom averaged at $932 a month.

So an individual would need to make $17.92 an hour to afford a one-bedroom at $932 a month. That’s before utilities, car payments or insurance (as we are public transportation deprived here), food, and anything else one might need. However, based on the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s information, the mean or average renter wage in Martin County is $14.48 per hour.

So what can be afforded at the average hourly rate of $14.48 is $753 per month. A renter making this average wage would need to work 1.6 jobs at this same hourly rate to afford a 2-bedroom at the fair market value of $1,211 per month.

To read the full report, click here.

A person making minimum wage cannot afford that which theoretically should be available.

Now what if you have kids? Or an elder parent or relative for whom you care?

In Martin County, you need to make $23.29 per hour to theoretically afford a $1,211 two-bedroom which is considered fair market value. Again, this is before all other costs.

Every year the United Way publishes its ALICE Report. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. This report identifies those households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county. The last report available from the United Way uses data from 2018.

On May 12, 2020, TCPalm published an overview of the annual report United Way ALICE report shows St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River in poverty ( The article covers the Treasure Coast but the highlights for Martin County are:

  • Median household income: $59,978, above the state average of $55,462
  • ALICE households: 33%, same as the state average
  • Living in poverty: 11%, below the state average of 13%
  • Cost of basic needs: $26,628 for a single adult, $80,028 for a family of four
To read the full ALICE report, click here.

Now for the practical application of the numbers.

The developers of Bridgeview, at the base of the Veterans Bridge, agreed to offer 10% of the approved 212 units as “affordable” and will offer them at 80% of the Area Median Income, but not the mean.

Bridgeview’s developers are offering approximately 21 units, with units starting at $1,041 for a one-bedroom.

According to the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the median household income in Martin County is $61,133.

If we accept that $61,133 is the median, then using the agreed to 80% of that income, our new adjusted income is $48,906.40.

But we’ve learned that including those in the ALICE population – 53,100 people- plus those who are in true poverty – 17,700 people – we eliminate approximately 70,800 people from being able to afford what the developer is saying is affordable.

Now for the important questions nobody can answer: How does a developer determine and track who qualifies? How does a developer maintain the information to provide reports to the City of Stuart based on their agreement? What happens to those 10% of units if the developer says they can’t find anyone who qualifies? Do they get rented at the fair market rate?

But the state of Florida states that a County or City cannot mandate this unless they agree to pay the difference between the agreed to rate and market rate.

While the City of Stuart included it in the ordinance for the Bridgeview development that these units be available, there is no way to maintain the agreement without diligence and a person with a dedicated responsibility employed by the City of Stuart. Who will be responsible for the oversight of this agreement on staff at the City?

More importantly, is there any hope to help those who rent?

If you are looking to Tallahassee for an answer, you probably won’t find it.

There are two competing bills in the Florida Senate. Senate Bill 580 would assist renters by providing relief to counties and cities and give rent control authority to local governments. However Senate Bill 620 instead allows a business (i.e., a landlord) to sue any County or City for damages if they adopt something like local referendum where residents can vote for emergency rent stabilization for one year.

That brings us back to the helicopter.

People in our community (and many communities) who need safe and affordable housing have less and less access to safe and affordable housing. Prices across the state have increased at absurd rates which is only compounded by those who have suffered from COVID and COVID-related job displacement and loss.

Our County and City could have created an amazing opportunity to benefit more than just the developers.

Instead, what has been approved by our County and City Commissions, a majority of which have required a myriad of variances and some in direct violation to the respective comprehensive plans, has disproportionately benefited only the developer.

While there are state limitations on asking developers to create a space for the socio-economically deprived, perhaps there are some out-of-the-box ideas that could help.

One thought is to use American Relief Plan funds. However, the funds are with the County and not the City so can the City ask for ARPA funds to use for something like supporting affordability?

Another thought is since the City and County are quick to allow for developers to pay to mitigate for a variety of things like tree removals, why not instead allocate mitigation costs to something meaningful? I mean, the City of Stuart initially agreed to waive the tree mitigation fees for the Kanner CPUD to make it more appealing to the developer, with no benefit to the community. So why not make the mitigation meaningful where there is a benefit to the community?

There are state limitations and unfortunately no easy fix to solving this dilemma. But there are things that could have been, and could still be tried, to make a truly beneficial private/public partnership that benefits the public as a whole.

In the meantime, the assault by developers resulting in the destruction of important ecological lands continues with a City and County Commissions that consistently defer to developers’ rights over quality of life where very little is truly affordable.

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