Affordable housing project in often-overlooked community aims to provide relief for farmworkers toiling in poverty and living in deplorable conditions.
Sitting on the corner of Lake Trafford Road and 19th Street in Immokalee, the construction site sticks out. It’s a big development. The property has been cleared, crews are working and, in just a few weeks, eight two-story buildings making up 128 hurricane resistant, two- and three-bedroom apartments will slowly begin to appear.
For those who live in bigger cities, this, seeing a large patch of land cleared out and crews roll in, is part of everyday existence, as common a site as a Starbucks or McDonald’s or Circle K on a street corner.
But here, in Immokalee, one gets the sense a project this big is something different, something out of the ordinary. To the observer shooting down Lake Trafford, it’s the size — 9.5 acres — that makes it stick out.
But what’s really different about this project, what makes it stand out to those in the know, those who live in this rural, hardscrabble town just north of the Everglades in east Collier County, is what the project means to the community, who it is being built for and what it represents.
The apartment development is an affordable housing project for low-income families in Immokalee. When complete, the development will include a community center with a computer lab and classrooms for early-childhood and afterschool programs. There will be athletic facilities and health counseling.
The idea behind the project is to create a home for families as well as opportunities for them to gain workforce skills and provide some stability to a community of largely of farmworkers.
“Safe, affordable, decent housing, hurricane resistant housing is the missing link to help low-income Immokalee families escape from exploitation and poverty,” says Arol Buntzman, chairman of the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance.
While cities up and down both coasts of Florida and nationwide struggle to find ways to provide affordable and workforce housing for its citizens, the Alliance, a nonprofit organization, is behind the development. It came up with the idea, bought the property and is raising the money and working with volunteers to get it built.
The goal: provide the families of farmworkers toiling in the nearby fields with safe, affordable housing options. Something many of them living in Immokalee just don’t have — and haven't for generations.
“When housing costs are more than 50% to 60% of household income,” Buntzman says, “there’s a problem.”
The Alliance was created shortly after Hurricane Irma tore through Southwest Florida in September 2017.
While there was major damage throughout the region and state, the storm created a secondary problem for many residents of Immokalee, particularly farmworkers.
The Alliance, one of several organizations working in the city to help, says long before the storm made landfall, living conditions for many of these workers were deplorable and that their options were few. The storm, though, created a housing shortage, leaving many with little choice but to pay these new inflated rents for their housing. According to the Alliance, rents, in some cases tripled and even quadrupled. All of a sudden, these low-income families were seeing 70% of their income going to rent, the group says.
And this was for homes that bordered on uninhabitable.
The word deplorable is not one to be used lightly, but how these homes are described by the Alliance and others leaves little choice.
According to the Alliance, what’s often happening in Immokalee is people are living in trailers infested with rodents, snakes and bugs that get in through unrepaired holes in the floors and ceilings. In some case there aren’t working bathroom or showers, and, without maintenance, repairs are left undone. Mold is common as is multiple people, as many as 12 in several cases, living in a single trailer.
“It’s not easy for us,” says Isabella, a resident who lives in a trailer about a mile from the construction site. The mother of three, whose husband is a farmworker, wouldn’t give her last name.
“We try to do what we can, to get by with what we have, and that’s OK. But, sometimes, when the kids walk into that house, it breaks my heart that they have to live like this.”
Most of these people living in these conditions are farmworkers, earning low wages that have to cover rent, food and other essentials needed for living. Some, though not all, also send money home to their families in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area grow sweet corn, radishes, green beans and lettuce along with rice and sugarcane. There are also cattle ranches and farms nearby.
The poverty rate in Immokalee, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 37.4% and the median household income is $30,885. In comparison, statewide the poverty rate is 12.7% and the median household income is $55,560.
Numbers on a computer screen or a piece of newsprint are one thing, but one needs to drive through Immokalee to see the living conditions firsthand.
The town itself is like many tiny Florida cities dotting state highways. There are a few chain stores, some Mexican restaurants and gas stations. Strangely, there isn’t a single car dealership on State Road 29, highly unusual in Florida. There are three auto parts stores, though, with a fourth under construction.
Off the main drags you begin to see what the Alliance is talking about. Across from where the apartment complex is being built, down the street from a Winn Dixie and another supermarket with a sign on the front reading Supermarket, is a collection of about five trailer homes with a dirt driveway. They are broken-down and dirty, boards cover windows, old furniture and appliances sit in the hot sun and clotheslines are filled.
These trailers are common in the town, some in large communities and others standing alone. Most are in the same condition.
There are homes, of course, but these are mostly squat houses with faded paint and fading yards and cracked driveways, many behind chain link fences. There’s one house with a huge statue of Jesus, arms spread, on its lawn and nearby another has a Tom Brady flag waving in the slight breeze, each one proselytizing for its chosen redeemer.
The homes are in better shape than trailers, but, frankly, that’s not saying much.
As bad as the poverty and as difficult as the existence is, there are signs these are people just trying to get by. One of those signs, on an early December day, is the large number of trailers and homes decked out with Christmas lights and decorations. It’s a reassuring sign and a reminder that, despite the hardships of poverty, of living on the edge of a swamp, the people have found some joy. Even if it is only for a few weeks.
The property on Lake Trafford Road and 19th Street was originally zoned Residential Single Family. Collier County Commissioners voted Sept. 8, 2020 to rezone it to Residential Planned Unit Development.
One condition for the rezoning was 70% of the units would be affordable to households earning less than 80% of the median income. The Alliance says rents will be below 30% of the household income.
Exact rents will be determined later, closer to when potential residents begin to apply.
The cost of the project is $18 million, and the Alliance is raising the money from several sources, including individual donors, foundations, businesses, churches and civic groups. The Alliance, on its website, says the decision to pay for the program this way is to avoid a mortgage in order to have the funds to maintain and operate the development. The Alliance had $1.3 million in assets and $536,000 in gross receipts in its most recent fiscal year, according to its public tax filings. It has no paid board members or paid executives.
Construction on the first phase of the project began in late November and the first residents are expected to begin moving in by December 2022.
One businesses heavily involved in bringing the project to life is Heatherwood Construction in Bonita Springs.
David Ellis, Heatherwood's director of business development, says it is working with the Alliance as part of its stated mission of giving back to the community.
“Let me start out by being clear on one end,” says Ellis. “We’re a for-profit business. We don’t build to lose money. And at the same time, we build for mission. And one of the things we want to do is affect our community, and affordable housing is clearly one of the leading concerns for our community.”
Heatherwood’s goal is to use its resources and leverage relationships to secure supplies and some services at a lower price, passing those savings on to the cost of building the apartments. Meanwhile, Ellis says the company’s goal is for the number at the end not to be red — or too red.
For Ellis, this project is more than just a pro bono assignment. He has been involved in the community for a long time, serving as president of the Immokalee Friendship House, a homeless shelter, and chairing an affordable housing commission for Collier County in the early 2000s.
He's seen the conditions people in Immokalee are living in and understands the challenges they face. And he knows the farmworkers are hardworking people simply taking care of their families on what little they earn. And, he says, they deserve a chance to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
“Being involved in a project like this is an amazing opportunity, not so much for us, but so that we can use our gifts and skills to help people…to us, it’s carrying on God’s mission.”