MANATEE COUNTY – April 4, 2016 – As a representative for one of the largest developers in Southwest Florida talked about how the free market affects rental prices, 20- and 30-somethings in the audience fumed.
Richard Bedford, vice president of planning for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said the free market was largely to blame for high rents and home prices in Sarasota and Manatee counties. He said his company is building 2,037 affordable units in Sarasota and 500 in Manatee over the next 10 years mainly because local governments gave his company financial incentives to do so. He said more government incentives and higher wages could answer the cost-of-living problem.
"Why doesn't the School Board or hospital pay you more? Aren't you worth it? It always comes back on me," Bedford said.
That prompted several people to shout comments and questions, such as:
"Are you pushing for a $15 minimum wage?"
"You're pricing out the people who are from here!"
It was a sample of the frustrations thousands of residents in Sarasota and Manatee counties feel about the local cost of housing.
The housing panel was part of Millennial Con – a three-day conference aimed at getting the region's young professionals ages 18-40 engaged in local government. Millennial Con was sponsored by the Manatee Millennial Movement and Manatee County Neighborhood Services. Saturday was Millennial Con's main event, with about 70 people gathering to hear panels and workshops about everything from financial stability to government engagement.
The housing panel discussion was the most anticipated and animated talk of the day.
Among those on the panel were Bedford, Bill O'Dell from the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Housing, Whiting Preston with Lake Flores, Wes Benham from Hancock Bank and Denise Thomas from Manatee County government.
O'Dell, who has studied housing in Florida since the 1990s, said there are 44 so-called "affordable housing units" per 100 in Manatee County. But only 18 out of 100 housing units are both affordable and available.
"More than half of affordable housing unit sales are for investor owners or for people's second homes," O'Dell said. "So not only are there fewer affordable housing sales, they're going to people who can afford more."
O'Dell said what's happening in Sarasota and Manatee counties is happening statewide and nationwide. The Great Recession pushed more older people, who traditionally own homes, into the rental market, creating more competition. There has been a 31 percent increase in renters in Florida from 2007 to 2014, while the number of homeowners dropped by about 8 percent.
And most of the new construction as a result of this rental demand is coming in the form of higher rent developments, O'Dell said.
Whiting Preston, who is behind the soon-to-be mixed-used development Lake Flores, suggested there may be affordable rentals, just not in the places millennials are looking for.
The audience groaned and some shouted "no."
Bedford said the apartment complexes in Lakewood Ranch are full, and each new apartment development fills up at a dizzying pace. But he and other developers don't want to build too many too quickly because then there would be more competition among apartments.
He said it boils down to the bottom line.
"If you make a ladder and someone will buy it for $20, why would you sell it for $10?" Bedford said.
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