SEBRING — Highlands County added approximately 417 jobs between 2012-2017 among a county where 22.9% of residents rent their homes.
In addition to that finding, a Multi-Family Workforce Housing Affordability Financial Feasibility Study, completed last month for the county by Kimley Horn Associates, states that developers could provide affordable apartment complexes to those workers. They just need county code tweaked to help the process and to have someone be the first to establish a development.
Once that’s done, other developers can then present that example to banks and investors as a “comparable” development that can deliver a return on that investment.
“I think the one thing to take away here is, on paper, the numbers work,” Kimley-Horn Project Manager Jessica Rossi said, “but that may not be enough.””
She said employment drives the need for such development. Chief among those industries are health care and education. Rossi said those jobs make up almost 29.5% of the local workforce, followed by trade and transportation at 20.3% and leisure/hospitality industries accounting for 12.4%.
Professional services is fourth at 9.8%, followed by natural resources at 9.3%.
“You don’t have much in your pipeline. I’m sure you all know that,” Rossi said.
She notes two redevelopment projects in downtown Sebring due to get completed in the next two or three years: The Nan-Ces-O-Wee and the Santa Rosa, old hotels being renovated into apartments.
Anecdotally, people told the consultants that it’s challenging to find rental properties in the county. Some of the major employers said their employees live out of county because they can’t find a local multi-family rental property.
Some were renting as far away as Lakeland, Bradenton or Sarasota.
Rossi also said the local vacancy rate for local rental properties is 3-4% while the target rate for multi-family vacancy is 7%, indicating Highlands County is a tight market.
“It’s impacting people’s availability to move in or move up,” Rossi said.
There is “pent-up” demand, Rossi said: 2,977 new units needed in the next 10 years.
Comparing to new development in Lakeland and Davenport, the study was able to find a market rental rate of 93 cents per square foot, or $900-$1,000 per month for a 900-1,050-square-foot apartment.
The study estimates that with a $4 million investment and $12 million loan, a developer should be able to build 12-18 units per acre and earn $1.32 million in the first year, equal to a yield of 8% and a five-year return of 20% or more.
There will be challenges to find developers willing to take a chance on building large-scale new construction, she said. The smaller renovation projects, Rossi added, would be easier.
Where to build
The study also identified nine “nodes” with proximity to employers and amenities, with site visibility, access to major roads and land already zoned for medium- to high-density development.
• NuCor, where industrial development will bring jobs in the near term.
• Downtown Avon Park with access to parks and city amenities in the near to mid-term.
• South Florida State College, which has expressed a need for nearby student housing in the near term.
• Sun ‘N Lake of Sebring near by AdventHealth Sebring in the near to mid-term.
• The North Sebring area by and near Sebring Parkway Phase 3 has mid- to long-term potential. Landowners in the area, more than a decade ago, rezoned land for high density in anticipation of development.
• U.S. 27 in Sebring by retail outlets at Shops at Shelby Crossing and Lakeshore Mall in the near term.
• Land by or near Agero and Highlands Regional Medical Center in the near term.
• Historic downtown Sebring and its access to Lake Jackson and other amenities. Renovation is underway to convert old hotels to apartments in the near term of two or three years.
• Spring Lake Improvement District, adjacent to job centers at Sebring Regional Airport and Industrial Park and at Sebring International Raceway, could have multi-family apartments in the near to mid-term.
Commission Chair Jim Brooks said he hears from developers that they can’t get a mortgage from the bank because they don’t have comparable development in the area so their project will work.
Rossi said county officials, in addition to tweaking code, may need to go into partnership to get something done.
That’s where a discussion about the county’s “appetite to be a partner,” whether alone or in a public-private partnership, would need to happen, she said.
It might be enough to facilitate the meeting to connect potential partners, she said.
Commissioner Don Elwell called the study a “good first step” and said he knows of some projects being discussed in the “nodes” that may happen sooner than the downtown Sebring ones.
Rossi said investors are still “bullish” on apartments, and that may help, also.
Brooks asked county staff if there are public funds to help. Development Services Director Benjamin Dunn said there are, which could help provide enough capital to help a developer move forward.
As for tweaking code, Kimley Horn Senior Planner Kelley Klepper suggested the county add the term “workforce” into its housing categories, encouraging infill and redevelopment and adding specific incentives.
The “nodes” already have high-density land use and incorporate both the cities and county, allowing developers to work with one or both, Klepper said.
Currently, the county allows 12 units per acre. Brooks said the county might consider the study’s recommendation of 16 or more.
“Opportunity nodes” were added to the Highlands County Future Land Use Map and Comprehensive Plan and to the documents’ definitions.
Since the study was paid for by a Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) Community Planning Technical Assistance Grant, received last September, Kimley Horn has been sending updates to the DEO throughout the process. Rossi said the next transmittal is due on June 21.