Four of five Charlotte County commissioners expressed dismay Tuesday at the cost of a low-income housing project proposed for Punta Gorda.
The board eventually decided to postpone a decision on whether the county would pay $425,625 toward the $13.2 million project. Called Verandas III, the project on Airport Road would provide 56 units of housing to low-income households of any age.
“I can't vote for something when these numbers don't make sense,” said Commissioner Joe Tiseo.
Tiseo calculated that the cost was $235,000 per unit with most of the units being one- and two-bedroom. The median cost of a single-family home in the county is $260,000, he said.
Brian Evjen of the developer, Norstar Development USA, offered many reasons why low-income housing can be so expensive.
The buildings are expected to survive at least 50 years, and to be hurricane proof. The Punta Gorda Housing Authority would not have lost so many units of affordable housing in Hurricane Charley if the buildings were constructed to higher standards, Evjen said.
Also, he said, wealthy investors, including banks, require a lot of guarantees to protect their investment. That drives up the cost of administration, insurance and monitoring.
Commissioner Bill Truex, who owns a construction company, acknowledged that costs are going up due to new international tariffs on steel, to labor shortages, and to high demand.
“The thing that bothers me is the developer fee,” he said of the $1.7 million expense. Norstar gets 75 percent and the housing authority, 25 percent.
“I don't want to say no to this, but I'm certainly not ready to say yes,” Truex said.
The problem for the housing authority is that without county funding, the odds drop dramatically for the project to be financed anytime soon. In the past, without county funding, the housing authority waited up to seven years for financing.
Commissioner Christopher Constance proposed that the county pay the figure, and then take the money back out of the housing authority's fee, which is $425,000.
Constance also pegged his disapproval to a bitter dispute with a prior housing authority director three years ago. At that time, the director refused to work with the county on the purchase of land by the Justice Center in 2015.
“It's time for the chickens to come home to roost,” Constance said.
Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch was the only commissioner not to offer strict criticism. Deutsch was once a housing authority director in Rhode Island. He explained to the commission and the audience that most of the cost of low income housing — 76 percent — is paid by investors, not the local government. This spreads the cost out to the whole country, because investors get a break on their federal taxes.
“It's costing the community a relatively small amount of money,” he said.
Proponents of the project agreed to provide more information to the board, but they acknowledged that the costs are not going to change in two weeks.
After the non-vote and criticism, the housing authority board chairman, Dr. Harry Agabedis, expressed his disappointment and hope for a change of mind.
“I'm hoping that they see that for a small amount of money, we're going to supply housing for the people of Charlotte County for a long time.”