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For the last decade, more and more renters in Gainesville have struggled to find affordable housing. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines housing as a cost burden when it costs more than 30% of one’s income. Florida has the highest cost-burden rate for renters in the country at 54.1%, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, which used data from the US Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. 

Gainesville has the highest housing cost-burden rate for renters out of all the metropolitan areas in Florida, at 65%, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies. This beats out large cities like Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition defines housing wage as the hourly pay a full-time worker must make in order to afford a modest rental home and not have it be a cost-burden. 

In Alachua County the housing wage is $17.19 an hour, according to UF's Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

The shortage of affordable housing in Florida is primarily due to the widening gap between people’s incomes and the cost of housing, said Anne Ray, the manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse at the center.

“Wages have not gone up very much for people working in traditionally lower paying jobs,” she said. “And housing costs really have gotten more expensive.”

But Ray is hesitant to say Gainesville’s affordable housing issue is much worse than that of other metros in Florida. 

A large reason why the cost-burden rate for renters is so high in the city is because of all the students, she said.

But even when compared to the 10 other metro areas with the highest share of households rented by students in the country, Gainesville has the highest cost-burden rate for renters.

And after excluding students from the rate, Gainesville still has the highest cost-burden rate for renters of the 11 metro areas at 60%, beating second place Lubbock, Texas, by six percentage points. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech University and has a population of 258,862, compared to Gainesville’s 133,997

Ray notes that the cost-burden rate for homeowners – as opposed to renters – in Gainesville is actually lower than a lot of other metros in Florida given that houses are cheaper than what one would find in a major city like Miami.

Students often increase the cost-burden rate for renters in small metros because they have low incomes and rent is likely much higher than 30% of their income. Oftentimes parents or loans pay for student housing, but students who come from families that can easily afford housing are still considered severely cost-burdened. 

Ray said she knows not all students are supported by their families and work to afford housing.

The cost to live in a double-room in Jennings Hall and the majority of other dorms for this academic year is $2,648 a semester, or about $160 a week. A student working 20 hours a week for minimum wage would make about $170 a week before taxes. In order for the dorm to make up less than 30% of a student’s income, or not qualify as a cost burden, they would need to work about 65 hours a week at minimum wage.

Students also affect the affordable housing market through their impact on local real estate. Just this year, at least six new luxury apartments were built near the university. 

This influx can have a negative effect on individuals and students looking for affordable housing.

Low-income students who do not have cars may be pressured to spend more money on expensive housing close to campus, pointed out Wayne R. Archer, the executive director of UF’s Kelley A. Bergstrom Real Estate Center. This could cause housing to become a cost burden to them.

The development of luxury apartments has two predominant impacts on affordable housing, Ray said. For one, it leaves more vacancies in affordable housing units when students choose to live in luxury complexes. On the other hand, such apartments take up a lot of space that could have been used for affordable housing.

“So the local effect can be to gentrify and increase prices in that neighborhood, “ Ray said. “And then the regional effect might be to free up more housing elsewhere.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted the affordable housing industry, Ray said.

Prior to the pandemic, Ray said the gap between the number of affordable housing units and people who need them was growing steadily for the past five years. Now, the gap has widened dramatically.

There has been a sharp increase in people who aren’t able to find affordable housing as well as people who are unable to pay their rent or mortgage.

To help combat the issue, both state and federal government agencies have passed temporary rent and eviction moratoriums for those impacted directly by the pandemic.

On Sept. 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention passed one such order that will last until the end of 2020. The order freezes some evictions when residents face true financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis allowed the state’s eviction moratorium to expire in October, saying it would help to avoid confusion as to whether the CDC moratorium should apply to any circumstance.

Renters who wish to be protected by the CDC order must fill out a form for their landlord declaring they have done their absolute best to pay as much rent as possible and will continue to pay what they can.

Although it is helpful in the short term, the problem with this, Ray said, is it ultimately leads to low-income renters accumulating large debts they’re not going to be able to pay.

She said she is also worried about the way these moratoriums affect small property owners who provide affordable housing. She said many of them rely on renters paying to maintain both the land and their livelihood. 

The moratoriums are a good starting point, Ray said, but they need to be coupled with federal rental assistance. 

“That's something that tenant advocates and landlords agree on,” she said. “We need to get money flowing into the system.”

Something to consider when searching for solutions to a lack of affordable housing is the potential for gentrified neighborhoods.

In Gainesville, there has been an increase in the number of home sales over $150,000 and amount of development in the area southeast of UF’s campus, off Main St. and Depot Ave., for example, Ray said.

As a result, property values increase and more expensive developments go up in the area. She said this can displace people living there when they can no longer afford the taxes or their rent increases.

Overtime, even if low-income households are able to continue living in these areas, eventually only wealthy people can afford to move into the neighborhood, further diminishing affordable housing options.

This can involve placing limits on how much a land owner can raise the price of a home, building, buying and preserving subsidized rental houses and enforcing rent restrictions.

“If you have a neighborhood where there's a lot of people who want to move into it,” Ray said, “it's really important to look at the alternative forms of housing tenure and ownership that can preserve long term affordability.”

Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola said the affordable housing issue in Gainesville is a crisis.

“Especially after this year, that’s a word I don't use lightly,” he said. “It's a huge, huge issue.”

The last major proposal by the city was the initiative gnvRISE which was tabled at the end of 2018 due to backlash from citizens.

The idea behind gnvRISE, Arreola said, was to implement changes in zoning and public policy to promote the private sector to build affordable housing.

Those in opposition to the initiative argued it would cause disruptive construction and an increase in property managers acquiring houses to rent to students.

“My greatest regret with gnvRISE is that we didn't have a substantive policy conversation,” Arreola said. ‘”It got hijacked by people's fears.”

The city plans to integrate new policies, including allowing for more density downtown, setting aside space for affordable housing units and sponsoring community land trusts that prevent gentrification by protecting homeowners from an increase in costs, Arreola said. The city is also looking to allow the construction of single-room and accessory dwelling units on any single lot in Gainesville.

The city is also creating a formal partnership with Gainesville Housing Authority. Arreola said the city is looking to back their efforts and aid them in pursuing federal and state grants.

Creating a healthy supply of affordable housing is a three-step process, Ray said.

There needs to be opportunities for affordable homeownership, affordable rental housing and supportive housing, which is deeply affordable housing combined with services for those who cannot live independently.

All three parts work together to facilitate affordable housing. 

“There's a lot of pieces to the system, but they all work together,” Ray said.

People wanting to be homeowners need affordable rental housing to save up for a home, she said. In order to free up rental units there needs to be affordable homeownership opportunities so people vacate the rentals. 

“A practical way to think about it might be to think, ‘Okay, how did all these pieces work together to create a healthy system at the local level?’,” Ray said.

Executing these three-steps is going to take more people seeing how large of an issue lack of affordable housing is, and getting money put into facilitating this process.

“Affordable housing is very much a solvable problem,” Ray said. “We have housing models that work and we really do need to invest more public money, frankly.”

Contact Nora at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @noroneill.

Staff Writer

Nora O'Neill is The Alligator's business reporter. She was previously the Avenue editor and a digital news staff writer. She is a sophomore journalism major and is in her fourth semester at The Alligator.