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COOPERATION KEY TO SUCCESS

BYLINE: LINDA RAWLS, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: December 26, 2005
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
EDITION: FINAL
SECTION: INSIDE LOCAL BUSINESS
PAGE: 1F


When Michele Robinson, a single mother, steps inside her new Boynton Beach area townhouse next fall, she can thank an unlikely alliance: two vegetable farmers who sold their prime land below market value with the stipulation that affordable housing be built on it; a pair of developers who agreed to make less money than usual in a booming real estate market; and county planning and zoning officials who cut through the red tape their regulations usually create.

The result is Green Cay Village, Palm Beach County's first affordable housing development marketed directly to teachers, police officers and other workers priced out of homeownership in one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.

The farmer: "We've been here for 50 years now and all the time we were farming, we had laborers who worked for very little. We paid more than most, but still, they were very low-income. We felt that the people that kept us in business all these years should have a chance to have some decent housing."

That's Ted Winsberg speaking.

In August, Ted and his wife, Trudy, sold 43 acres at the corner of Jog and Flavor Pict roads, west of Boynton Beach, for $4.2 million. That's about $97,500 an acre. Similar land in the fast-growing western part of the county - the only place large tracts of vacant land still exist - is selling for more than $150,000 an acre, property records show.

The developer: "Yes, we will make money, but our profit will be substantially less than any of our other ventures."

That's Randy Rieger, a principal of Miami-based Housing Trust Group, speaking. Rieger bought the Winsbergs' land in partnership with Jerry Goray, president of Goray Communities of Boca Raton.

Goray: "We wanted to demonstrate to the community - to South Florida - that not only can you do affordable housing, but you can do it by providing an exciting product with a lot of energy efficiency, and even a few luxury features like granite countertops."

Planning and zoning officials: "The challenge of this project was to make sure that what was being submitted met code requirements and still maintained the affordability of the project," said Barbara Alterman, executive director of the county's planning, zoning and building department.

"I hope this will be a model project demonstrating that it's possible to do this," Goray said.

Stalled for months

Rather than a model project, however, Green Cay Village was for months a stalled project.

Confusing "affordable housing" with "housing project," residents of neighboring communities fought hard to keep Green Cay out. They told the county commission the development would bring crime and lower property values, and that young families with children couldn't possibly fit in with senior citizens.

"I'd be ashamed if I were saying the things they said," Winsberg recalled. "They were saying they'd be robbed in their homes and all sorts of wild things."

Such unfounded claims prompted Commissioner Tony Masilotti to publicly admonish the protesters.

"What's being broadcast across the airwaves is you don't want children and minorities in your neighborhood," he told them.

After nearly a year of delays - during which time construction costs rose 40 percent to 50 percent - the commission approved the project, but the number of rental apartments reserved for workers earning 60 percent of the median income was cut in half.

"It's happening," Winsberg said. "Not like we wanted it to, but it's happening."

The developers are more upbeat about the outcome.

"It took a joint effort with the county, which has been very cooperative, and the landowners and ourselves," Goray said. "I want to give credit where credit is due. You don't hear this often, but the planning and zoning and building department was great."

With all three parties - the farmers, the developers, and planning and zoning officials, working together, Goray said, the end result "is something we can all be proud of."

It's also something sorely needed in Palm Beach County, where home prices have risen 171 percent in the past five years, but wages have grown only 9 percent.

The median price of an existing home in October was $416,500, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. In 2000, the median price was only $138,600.

While home prices soared, however, income failed to keep pace. The county's median family income for 2005 is $61,850, not much more than it was in 2000, when workers earned a median annual wage of $56,600 a year, Census reports show.

Disparity reaches crisis

The growing disparity between escalating home prices and stagnating wages has reached crisis level, a Palm Beach Post special report published last month showed.

Many area workers are forced to live far from their jobs, in towns and cities where housing is more affordable.

As a result, they endure long daily commutes, which means they spend less time with their families and less time involved in their communities.

Businesses, too, have suffered as they lose employees to areas where housing is less expensive. And they have trouble expanding because they can't hire new workers or are forced to raise wages for workers that do remain.

Communities have paid a price for the housing crisis, as well. Existing businesses are relocating to areas where their employees can afford housing, the Palm Beach County Business Development Board says.

Similarly, the county is having difficulty attracting new businesses because workers can't afford to live here.

And the crisis is getting worse, new studies show.

Housing affordability in October plunged to its lowest level nationwide in nearly 15 years, according to a National Association of Realtors report.

Another important study, an analysis by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo, shows that in the third quarter of this year, affordability fell to its lowest level since the study first was published in 1992.

The Home Builders/Wells Fargo analysis shows that only 43 percent of new and existing homes sold nationwide in the third quarter were affordable to families earning the median income. Palm Beach County results are even grimmer: Only 34 percent of homes sold during the July-through-September period were affordable. That's down from 37 percent in the second quarter this year. The lower the percentage, the less affordable the homes are.

"We're definitely in a crisis stage," said Jack McCabe, chief executive of McCabe Research and Consulting in Deerfield Beach, which analyzes the Palm Beach County housing market. "We're seeing tens of thousands of people moving north and out of state because they can no longer afford to live here.

"People who grew up here, who married their high school sweetheart, who have lived in this area all their lives, can no longer afford the price of a house," he said.

Unusual marketing approach

That's why the developers of Green Cay Village took their project directly to the community - the people they're building it for - rather than advertise it.

"Rather than initially have a big public grand opening, we went to local hospitals, the school district, the sheriff's office and county employees," Goray said. "We didn't go public. We went straight to the community, and I'm very proud of that effort."

Not surprisingly, the community responded with enthusiasm.

"I'm a single mother with an 11-year-old boy," said Robinson, 37, a hair stylist. "I've been blowing $1,200 to $1,400 a month in rent because I couldn't find a place to buy that I could afford. For me to buy a townhouse for $400,000 or $500,000 just isn't going to happen."

What did happen, though, is that Robinson's parents live near Green Cay Village, and on a recent visit to them she happened to notice the development. "I really got lucky," she said.

Indeed she did. She bought a three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse for $272,000. All 100 townhouses have since been sold.

There are still condominiums for sale, and rental apartments will be reserved for people earning about $37,000 a year (60 percent of the county's median income). The monthly rents will be below market rate: $657 for a one-bedroom apartment, $793 for two bedrooms and $913 for three bedrooms.

Market rate rents for Palm Beach County apartment complexes with 100 units or more are well above that, said housing analyst McCabe: $963 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,224 for two bedrooms and $1,479 for a three-bedroom apartment.

Setting down rules

The Green Cay Village developers have taken steps to ensure that buyers are truly people in need of affordable housing, not investors or speculators. Buyers are limited to one unit. They must live in the homes they buy. And if they sell during the first year, the developers get 100 percent of any profits. In the second year, the developers get 50 percent of any profits from sales and 25 percent in the third year.

"After the third year, we're convinced they're going to be around," Goray said.

Info Box - Green Cay Village

Green Cay Village is Palm Beach County's first affordable housing development marketed directly to teachers, police officers and other workers priced out of homeownership.

The 43-acre community at Jog and Flavor Pict roads features 160 condos, 100 townhomes and 160 apartments; a 6,325-square-foot clubhouse with children's play area, outdoor heated swimming pool, fitness center, splash pool with fountain, volleyball court, and a soccer-field-size play area.

'Green' features: 'Energy Star' rated appliances; high-efficiency air-conditioning units; R-30 attic insulation; energy-efficient hot water heaters; native-plant landscaping; and reclaimed water lawn irrigation.

Deed restrictions: One unit per buyer; buyer must live in unit; if buyer sells unit in first year of ownership, developer retains 100 percent of any profit, 50 percent of profit in second year and 25 percent in third year.

 
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