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Issue No. 1 for 2022? Housing

By Staff | Dec 30, 2021

For health care and education professionals, and for those otherwise personally affected by the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic continued to have a grave impact on Lee Countians in 2021.

The School District of Lee County continues to deal with the challenge of “learning loss” in our children — it’s real and it’s heartbreakingly severe — as well as teacher burnout. Lee Health and other health care providers share that flame of fatigue and stress.

Given the impact on so many of us, it’s hard to see any silver lining.

Many outside of Florida, though, have seen the light.

And they are coming here in droves.

Cape Coral is not only among the fasted-growing cities in the U.S. right now — the Cape came it at No. 5, according to the U.S. Census — it also has been ranked the No. 1 spot in the county for projected economic growth by Moody Analytics.

In terms of impact on overall property valuations — and for most of us on the value of our individual home or commercial property — it’s up, up and away — as good as the boom time. Maybe better, if those who say “no bust, no way” prove to be correct in the years ahead.

The flip side, though, is a crisis in the making: Renting, much less buying, has become difficult for many in our workforce, despite the increases in wages now being paid.

The average single-family home in the Cape is around $350,000 right now for a house that likely was $275,00 last year at this time. The median price is currently $539,950.

Local realty agencies put that median a little lower countywide but the year-over-year increase, at about 22%, is quite a hike.

Rental costs in the Cape, meanwhile, have moved well past “affordable” for the average wage earner or family — the average rent is around $1,500 a month now — and that’s for an apartment. For a house its $1,950-$2,000.

These increases are being driven by demand — more people moving in and looking to rent or buy, many with cash in hand from the sale of more expensive properties “up north.”

The numbers tell the story.

Overall taxable property valuation jumped by double digits in Cape Coral again last year.

Despite some predictions that the COVID pandemic would negatively impact Southwest Florida property values, the city’s overall taxable valuation came in at a 10.88 percent increase, the biggest jump since the last big boom year of 2007.

Total taxable valuation of Cape Coral properties rose to $18,382,969,754 — a value change of $1,804,213,873, with $616,594,782 of that from new construction.

City officials are projecting another jump in overall valuation of 10-11 percent this year.

While that may be good news for homeowners looking to sell now or in the near future, for home buyers, especially those looking for a starter, retirement or other “affordable” housing option, that news is not so good.

Nor is it good for area employers.

It’s a tough market now for those hiring and it’s looking to get harder if the labor force can’t afford to live here.

A couple of things.

One, the city cannot legislate away demand. Nor can the city control market-driven costs, including rental rates.

What the city can do is control what it can control — city policies, laws, rules and fees that impact housing costs.

The city is already out front on one of these.

After years of postponement, FEMA has revamped the risk factors on which flood insurance rates are determined.

Basically, what the federal agency has done is “spread the cost of risk…” “…to deliver rates that are acuarily sound, equitable, easier to understand and better reflect a property’s flood risk.”

What that means here in the Cape is that property owners in Flood Zone A and AE are looking now at a premium increase of at least 18 percent with similar annual increases to come. Those who are new homeowners — all of those people paying elevated prices — are looking at paying thousands more than current policy holders.

If you’re renting, it’s a cost that is added on.

The city of Cape Coral has put fighting FEMA 2.0 on its priority list — as well it should. Kudos and good luck.

Also added on to housing costs are taxes and fees, which the city has long chosen to look at as a cash cow in times of increased valuations.

While Council this year ticked back the property tax rate to 6.25 mills from the 6.375 proposed, it opted — again — not to “roll back” taxes to 5.9962 mills, a rate that would have kept existing taxes level while still bringing the city $4.2 million in additional revenue due to new construction.

One can argue “it’s not much” but consider: Council boosted the city’s operating, or general fund, by 17 percent — almost $43 million more — for the new fiscal year bringing the tally to nearly $296.6 million. Much of that is property taxes and fees, including the assessment to offset the cost of fire services and taxes on utility bills.

No kudos here.

Back on the plus side — perhaps.

Council has approved an plan to boost economic development by incentivizing higher paying jobs and projects to help shift the tax burden mostly carried now by residential property owners. Council approved a budget of up to $2.5 million this year for its CapeCompetes initiative.

Already approved are incentives for at least two projects that will include rentals.

One is Madison Square, which in 2022 is expected to bring low-cost housing for income-qualifying seniors.

Another is The Cove, a multi-use project which will bring approximately 290 apartment units — studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom units — to the South Cape.

Depending on how the city continues to allocate the money, there’s some long-term potential here on the home front, as well as on the jobs side.

But what is needed is some immediate help and buried within the incentives package is a recommendation to look at impact fees, essentially a tax on new construction intended to help pay for new infrastructure, to make sure the city is competitive.

We agree this is worth a review, particularly if it includes a hard look at fees assessed to housing at the lower end of the scale.

We will add one of our own.

The city, which a couple of years ago took another swing at how much valuation a home had to have for the city to “break even” on services provided, needs to reconsider its “size matters” view on residential housing.

Yes, bigger houses on the Cape’s small lots build a bigger tax base but this long-held and fear-mongering philosophy that every house should be a 3-2 with a 2-car garage (or, gasp, your property values will go down) is the antithesis of affordable housing that is market-driven. It’s also outdated as growth-driven communities across the country — and right here in Florida — can attest.

Incentives for housing those in the workforce can actually afford, and not just another apartment community behemoth, can have a quick impact, not just on those looking for a place to live but on our city’s businesses that are looking to hire them.

We urge Cape Coral City Council, as it begins the new year and focuses its efforts on developing a strategic plan for the city’s future, to open its collective mind to fostering a diversification of the housing options available here in the Cape.

We further urge our city administration and elected board to prioritize formulating the foundation needed for various types of housing opportunities in the Cape.

For we see not only a Cape Coral where people live and work, but a city where people can afford to do both. Now and in the future.

We wish you a happy New Year.

May the best be yet to come.

–Breeze editorial