CLEWISTON — Hendry County commissioners, presented with a list last week of proposed sales of various properties the county has acquired, discussed the potential the lots might hold for fulfilling their goal of making more affordable housing available in the area.
First, Commissioner Karson Turner asked that the sale of two longer-held lots in Wheeler Estates be pulled from the consent agenda so commissioners could discuss the topic. That portion of the agenda also included a new batch of lots there to be declared surplus, as well as a listing agreement with Belle Realty for the parcels.
Mr. Turner, noting that those two lots had been acquired through donation, said: “I know that Commissioner (Michael) Swindle at one point made a suggestion about properties up in Montura and what potential swaps could be on there. Have you all looked at that and said, ‘We think they definitely need to go to the private sector,’ or is there any need for us to have anything out that way? The gist is, I want to know why we’re pushing all of those to the market now.”
County Attorney Mark Lapp answered that, “with the exception of two older holds that are now being released to market and two new acquisitions that are being moved to hold, Shane can explain.”
County Engineer R. Shane Parker stepped up to say the lots were “scattered like a shotgun shell but not as bad as in Montura. ... Then we actually picked up some more recently, and two of them were side-by-side on a corner and that’s better, so we surplused the other two that we were holding and kept (the adjoining ones) as places that we could actually store equipment if need be,” for use as a staging area when there are nearby projects.
“That’s right in line with what I’m saying,” said Mr. Turner, “but I would love to know throughout the county what we have that’s available like that, and then this goes right into the affordable-housing conversation that we’ve had for quite some time.”
Mr. Parker said staff have maps already done but that he’d not brought them.
Commissioner Turner said he didn’t want to delve too deeply into the topic but that since the county has both available land and a fund to help lower-income people seeking housing, they should consider new programs to assist more of the population.
Planning and Community Development Director Margaret Emblidge spoke up. “He actually brings up a good idea,” she said, explaining that she’d come across a different approach used elsewhere “where a county takes surplus properties — and there are some legal wranglings — but puts out requests for qualifications for builders to build on those lots, specifically for schoolteachers, county employees, and come up with the covenants and restrictions that would have to go with it.”
She added that they’d “try to keep it at arm’s length because the county’s not really into real estate, but there’s an opportunity for us to broker these situations, and to me that is probably one of our best opportunities in the near future to be able to provide that housing, make it work for the builder as well, but still have those restrictions that it has to be kept within basically the family of county employees.” Seeing Attorney Lapp’s raised eyebrows, she said, “Mark, don’t have a heart attack, but it was something I wanted to bring up.
“I was going to propose that for our next list of surplus properties, we create a different fund that would allow us to use the dollars ... to help more of the workforce housing,” she said, noting that they’d have to create guidelines and a program.
Commissioner Swindle and board Vice Chairwoman Emma Byrd both called that a great idea. “We know housing is very important right now. We talked about in times past that we’re going to wait until that time comes and we’re going to get stuck. So we need to make sure that we have housing lined up,” said Ms. Byrd.
The sale of the two Wheeler Estates lots then was approved, and a wider discussion of the affordable-housing program took place later, when Ms. Emblidge presented her proposed amendment to expand Hendry County’s Affordable Housing Fund Program by loosening criteria for use of the fund money and also make higher amounts available to those needing assistance.
She said that under the applicable state statute, the definition of affordable housing limited the assistance lower-income individuals could get, but that the proposed changes would make higher sums available. “We’re finding that ... other folks that are in need that are coming to us are in that next bracket of income, which is why we need to look at another program.”
Answered Commissioner Swindle: “I agree, and I would say sooner rather than later because we know the need is there, and we still see blue tarps that are a year and two months old.”
The commission approved the program changes as proposed, 4-0. Chairman Mitchell Wills was absent.