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Pasco drops fees, hopes to attract affordable housing

The county plans to waive transportation fees for projects aimed at people of moderate means.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Fourteen months after a Pasco County Commission majority voted down a proposed apartment complex for low-wage earners, the county plans to offer financial incentives to developers building affordable housing.

Only Commissioner Kathryn Starkey commented on the dichotomy during a Feb. 25 commission workshop. She had learned that Pasco has an inventory of 58 apartment complexes with fewer than 4,000 units for low- or moderate-income tenants.

"Wow. That is not a lot in a population our size,'' said Starkey.

"No, it’s not,'' agreed Marcy Esbjerg, the county’s community development director.

“That’s way under. We should have one up on (State Road) 52,'' said Starkey.

Her apparent dig at Commissioners Jack Mariano, Mike Wells Jr. and now-Chairman Mike Moore drew no response.

Related: Pasco tells apartment builder senors welcome, but not the poor

Starkey and Commissioner Ron Oakley were on the short end of a 3-2 vote in December 2018 when the owner of 12 vacant acres at SR 52 and La Madera Boulevard proposed to use the property for apartments. The targeted tenants were people earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income — $31,000 for a typical west Pasco household. Mariano, Wells and Moore turned down the request after residents from the adjoining Timber Oaks and Bear Creek neighborhoods objected.

Last week, however, nobody disputed the need for affordable housing after Esbjerg provided a litany of statistical data on housing options and income levels around the county:

  • Housing prices increased 77 percent over the past 13 years, and rents are up 71 percent in the same time period.
  • Forty percent of Pasco households earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, qualifying them as low- to moderate-income. In Pasco, two of every five households earn less than $53,500 and qualify for housing assistance.
  • Fifty-four percent of Pasco residents are considered "cost burdened,'' meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their household gross income for housing. A renter is twice as likely as a homeowner to fall into that category.
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  • A full-time worker in Pasco would need to earn $17.62 hourly to rent a typical two-bedroom apartment charging a fair market rent of $1,133 per month. But the median wage in the Tampa metropolitan area is $17.27 per hour.
  • Nearly half of the renter-occupied units in Pasco have problems that could include incomplete plumbing or unfinished kitchens, overcrowding or be too costly for tenants. But the number one problem is cost, said Esbjerg.
  • The United Way’s ALICE report — an acronym for asset-limited, income-challenged, employed — showed 45 percent of the nearly 196,000 households in the county are below the poverty level or earn less than the basic cost of living. These working-poor households stretch across the county, including 17 percent of Trinity to 70 percent of Crystal Springs, according to the 2017 data..

“They have a problem with their car or they lose a job, they’re more likely to get into a major financial crisis or perhaps (become) homeless,’’ said Esbjerg.

One detail that wasn’t shared — a person in Pasco has to wait nearly two years to receive a federal housing voucher, according to 2016 data. And currently, the waiting list for public housing at the Pasco Housing Authority numbers 1,000 people, including 673 seeking a one-bedroom apartment.

Commissioners agreed to follow Esbjerg’s recommendation to remove transportation fees on new construction of affordable housing projects, including both single-family homes and apartment complexes. The maneuver, which still is subject to a formal vote, is expected to assist the Habitat for Humanity rebuilding of the Leisure Lane area outside the city of New Port Richey.

Related: New home supplants blight in Habitat for Humanity neighborhood

Currently, the county charges a $2,141 transportation fee per apartment in an affordable housing complex and $3,315 for an affordable single-family home in its urbanized areas of west and south-central Pasco.

"The number one thing developers say to you is that it costs too much to build here because of these fees,'' said Esbjerg, "so that takes that totally off the table.''