Editorial: Tampa smart to explore affordable housing options

Published Dec. 10, 2018

It's easy to understand the housing crisis when so-called "affordable homes" in Tampa are selling for $220,000 apiece. A new effort by the Tampa City Council could help expand home ownership opportunities for moderate wage-earners. Coming months before city elections, this is a chance for mayoral and council candidates to be creative in addressing a growing problem that has broad implications for neighborhoods and the economy.

In twin discussions recently, the council heard concerns over city-supported home-building projects and proposals for building affordable homes from storage containers. About a dozen residents complained that a city contract to develop about 85 parcels in east Tampa would be cost-prohibitive - with homes selling between $180,000 to $224,000 - and lead to residents being pushed out of the predominantly black, low-income neighborhood. In a later discussion, executives from a Tampa company that builds homes out of storage containers told the council they could build a smaller home for about $83,200. That piqued the interest of east Tampa residents, who said the five-figure price tag was more in line with their definition of affordable.

Storage containers may not sound ideal, but they are part of a growing movement toward "tiny homes," which collapse livable space into more efficient footprints, reducing the cost to home buyers. The Tampa company can build a 640-square foot home for about $83,200. The homes meet health and safety codes, don't require as much maintenance and are resistant to hurricanes. The containers can be stacked or coupled to provide any range of configurations. Even smaller tiny homes could be grouped in a multi-family setting, enabling residents to maximize their space by sharing a kitchen or other common areas.

Tiny homes have shot into the affordable housing discussion because they are adaptable and appeal to many buyers for varied reasons. The interest reflects the challenges posed by rising housing prices and the lack of inventory at the lower end of the scale. A survey by Metrostudy shows that while housing starts in Tampa are up compared to the third quarter last year, starts under $250,000 are down nearly 9 percent over the same period. "We are already under-supplied on the lower end product," Metrostudy reported in October, adding that land, labor and other costs "make it nearly impossible to build truly affordable housing." And even if Tampa sustains its job growth, Metrostudy warned, road blocks will still remain where housing costs outpace wage growth. Adding to the problem are the interest rate increases anticipated next year.

Tiny homes could be part of the solution, but the city will need a much broader strategy - rethinking its land development code, easing parking requirements and other regulatory changes to welcome a new type of residential mix. The city will also have to protect the traditional neighborhood setting. Housing costs, low inventory and rising rents have already prompted many home owners to rent out rooms in single-family homes. Three front doors and five cars in the yard is a dead giveaway. The housing crunch is putting pressure on property owners and creating challenges for code enforcement to protect the neighborhoods. As Tampa continues this discussion, the candidates for mayor and council seats in the March election need to flesh out an agenda that stabilizes housing and accommodates future growth.