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Housing costs are key to Cape’s economic health

By Staff | Apr 13, 2023

Cape Coral City Council got a look at the city’s economic health Wednesday.

The prognosis?

The vital signs monitored look good, not only here in the Cape but in Lee County.

Post Ian, post devastating destruction with a rebuild that is projected to take years, that is welcome news.

Unemployment rates in the city sit at 2.7% as of February, a bit better than the 2.9% seen in January and better than the 3.1% in February of last year.

Unemployment in Lee County is 2.8% as compared to the state average of 2.5%.

Put in context, an unemployment rate of 5% or lower is often considered “full employment.”

So on the job front, in terms of work available, the numbers are good.

Numbers provided by the city’s Economic Development Office also show a robust business climate.

Vacancy rates for retail, office and industrial space are low, sitting at 1.8%, 2.5% and 0.9% respectively, with new construction projects under way or in the pipeline.

According to the presentation made by Cape Coral Economic and Business Development Officer Sharon Woodberry, the city has seen the addition of 339,333 square feet of retail space in the last eight quarters, with 132,005 square feet coming in the next eight quarters, and an additional 125,339 square feet proposed after that.

In terms of office construction, 50,000 square feet has been added in the past eight quarters with 122,280 square feet proposed in the queue.

Industrial space is at 72,600 square feet added in the last eight quarters, with 173,175 under construction.

So a solid job market and additional job growth in the future.

Good and good.

There’s a truism when talking economic issues, though, and that’s every coin counted has a flip side.

Here in Cape Coral, and throughout Lee County, the economic picture is not so buff when it comes to housing.

The cost of living has sky-rocketed, particularly in the housing sector.

Apartment rentals are now around $2,000 a month and up, with nothing under $1,700.

If you are looking to buy a home, “affordable” has been redefined — and not for the better unless you are investing or selling.

As of April 3, the preliminary number for the median sales price for March was $415,000, according to Bob and Geri Quinn, RE/MAX Realty Team, in a column published by The Breeze.

You can still buy a three-bedroom, two-bath home in the Cape for under $350,000 with some builders offering new homes in the northeast and northwest for $325,000.

These homes are scarce, though.

While listings vary as homes come on the MLS and houses sell, of the 533 active listings in the Cape at $450,000 or less, only 13 were below $300,000, according to the Quinns’ April 7 column.

What this means in terms of the job market is you need a near six-figure income to buy a $300,000 home, a tad over to bump up to the $400,000 price range.

Per capita, income in the Cape is $34,586.

Median household income is $65,282.

The not-so-shiny side of the numbers coin — the vital sign unaddressed — is that would-be homeowners are being priced out of the market in the community where they live and work and not only by home prices but by the escalation in related costs. That’s home insurance, flood insurance, taxes, fees and assessments which add to monthly mortgage payments

We point out that renting is now far from “affordable” for many of these reasons as well.

Housing — call it “affordable,” call it “workforce,” call it what you will — is the most critical challenge faced here in Southwest Florida where Hurricane Ian blew an already bad situation into the unsustainable.

Housing, specifically as it applies to the ability to become a homeowner, needs to be our top priority because it is the key economic driver. It is the greatest incentive for attracting and retaining a trained, skilled, professional workforce — the thing that drives those great economic development numbers because they follow rooftops.

A top priority at the state level where our legislators are playing politics while the issue gets a hasty dollar store bandage.

A top priority at the city level where “maintaining property values” means fostering high-density rentals while segregating other types of multi-family accommodations and constraining the types of homes that can be built so as to maximize per-lot property taxes is the norm.

It is time for a sea-change in thinking Tallahassee to local to better allow the market to drive housing fulfillment.

Fulfillment that doesn’t require a taxpayer subsidy to attract needed, key personnel like teachers and first responders.

Fulfillment that doesn’t mean having residents hoping — and waiting — for an income-qualified apartment because they can’t rent otherwise, much less buy.

Regulations, restrictions and resistance to a redefinition of residential neighborhoods are roadblocks to homeownership. They are the invisible add-ons to cost.

The American Dream may not be dead in Southwest Florida.

But it’s gasping.

It’s time to give it some room to breathe.

–Breeze editorial