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PRICED OUT OF FLORIDA

For A Better Florida is the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state. This is the second of a three-part series, which will continue on March 5.

From the Panhandle to South Florida to Tampa Bay, working families are discovering the grim flip side of the boom years. After five years of surging home prices, wages have remained flat. Jobs that once paid for housing no longer do.

The ramifications are just now being felt. Some companies are shunning Florida for other regions where housing is cheaper. School districts, hospitals and law enforcement agencies can't fill vacant positions. Workers who can least afford longer commutes are getting pushed to the rural fringes. Apartments, long a pit stop for striving middle-class families before home ownership, are getting converted into pricey condos at a record pace.

Meanwhile, true "affordable" housing is dwindling. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rates the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area as one of the most difficult in the nation to build affordable housing. Ditto for South Florida.

"It's reached a crisis," said Michael Bennett, a Republican state senator from Bradenton. "If the only people who can afford to move down here are retirees, we kill our economy. There won't be a work force to support them."

During this year's legislative session, Bennett is sponsoring a bill that would spawn more affordable housing by encouraging local governments to waive density and height limits. It would allow school boards to acquire land to build homes within teachers' price range.

Bennett says he already has strong support. Just three years ago, House Republicans tried to eliminate a trust fund established in 1992 to provide homes for low- and moderate-income Floridians, which is financed by a 10-cent tax on real estate transactions. Now, many of the same lawmakers want to preserve the $1-billion trust fund, said Jamie Ross, the affordable housing director at 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit growth management organization.

"The housing shortage is so dire that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, acknowledges we have a problem," Ross said.

Statewide, the median sales price for an existing single-family home climbed from $115,900 in 2000 to $235,100 in 2005. Yet the wages that help pay those fattened mortgages lagged far behind.

In the same five years it took median housing prices to double from $100,500 to $201,700 in the Tampa Bay area, median household income rose only 10 percent to $52,150. In Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, median income dropped between 2000 and 2004 while home prices soared by 50 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Higher property taxes are steering apartment owners into going condo. In the last five years, roughly 9 percent of Hillsborough County's rentals, about 8,700 units, and 16 percent of Pinellas County apartments, 8,500 units, have been converted, according to a market survey by the Bay Area Apartment Association.

In the 17 years the association has done the survey, condo conversions had never been numerous enough to track - until last year, said Jeff Rogo, its governmental affairs director.

The type of apartments getting devoured by condos are newer, upper-end properties that fetch rents of more than $1,000 a month. That's also the type, Rogo said, that are rented by professionals between 18 and 34 embarking on promising careers.

"This is no longer an issue that applies to low-income people," said Anne Williamson, assistant director of housing policy at the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing.

"Affordable housing now affects, deeply, the middle class."

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When Gwen MacKenzie came down from Michigan nine months ago to become chief executive officer for Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, she thought her nursing background had her trained for the job.

But after she attended a company forum and learned that many of her employees couldn't afford nearby housing, MacKenzie realized a career in land development might have been more suitable.

"I didn't know a lot about affordable housing," MacKenzie said. "I do now."

Affordable housing, for hospitals, really is a life-or-death issue. Without an adequate supply of cheap housing near a hospital, many clinical professionals must drive farther away for housing. Longer commutes can cost lives during emergencies.

In the last five years, median housing prices in the Sarasota and Bradenton market have climbed from $138,000 to $322,700, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. This surge pressured rental properties to cash out, eliminating much of the temporary housing favored by lower-wage employees who keep a hospital humming.

Even well-paid doctors are scared off by such steep home prices, MacKenzie says.

So MacKenzie is working on a plan with the school district and Sarasota County to build affordable housing for employees with other vital jobs, such as teaching and law enforcement.

"We've all got the same issue," MacKenzie said. "And we've all got land."

Florida's more urban counties traditionally relied on neighboring rural counties to supply affordable housing. But prices in these counties have crept higher, rendering cheap housing as endangered as the gopher tortoise or Florida panther.

"The $70,000 home doesn't exist anymore," said George Romagnoli, community development manager in Pasco County. "You cross that Hillsborough border now, and there's no change in price."

Florida's growth has left many school districts scrambling to keep up. Tom Greer, an Osceola County school board member, said rents now are upward of $1,000 a month, consuming about a third of a first-year teacher's salary of $33,000.

Greer said that a combined 1,000 teaching jobs were unfilled when the school year began in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Polk, Volusia, Manatee, Hillsborough and Brevard counties.

"(Osceola) needs about 650 new teachers every year, and it's getting harder to find them when we don't have housing," he said.

Greer is lobbying state lawmakers to authorize school boards across the state to buy land and pick developers to build and operate apartments. Without paying land costs, Greer says, developers can afford to build cheaper housing. Sen. Bennett said he may put Greer's ideas into his bill.

Only "essential services personnel" - firefighters, police, teachers - would be able to live in the homes. State Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, is sponsoring another bill that would provide down-payment assistance, but only for teachers of exceptional student education, mathematics, science and reading.

Ross, of 1000 Friends of Florida, said she's pleased that affordable housing is finding advocates in Republican lawmakers and organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

"But the challenge is making sure that everyone understands that if police, teachers and firefighters can't afford housing, the janitors, clerks and maids can't afford housing either," Ross said. "They may not be saving your life, but we can't have a community without them."

Times staff writers Dan DeWitt and Sharon L. Bond contributed to this report.

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