By Isabelle Gan | Contributing Writer
The next year will be a pivotal time for the future of the Gulf Coast building industry, specifically Sarasota and Manatee counties, says Jay Brady, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, a construction and builders lobbying group. From Sarasota County's proposed amendments to its comprehensive plan to encouraging students to go into the construction trade, Brady says it will take radical changes from local and state governments to provide a healthy future for the local housing economy. Here are excerpts of an interview with the Review:
What is the most pressing local issue for developers this year?
Sarasota County is really struggling with a system [of zoning laws] that's going to work. The comprehensive plan is coming back from the state for final hearings in April. The inclusionary zoning laws are a lot of what we're looking at, whether they're going to be more incentive based or mandatory based. Some commissioners are pushing for a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that would require perhaps 15% of a project to have affordable units in them in exchange for density bonuses.
What do you think of mandatory inclusionary zoning programs?
It's been proven in studies to be a failure. But county officials prefer to dismiss those studies. The problem is, [in Sarasota County] you can't even achieve the current allowable densities because of open space requirements, storm water requirements, buffer and minimum lot size requirements. So, how are they going to give us a density bonus when we can't even achieve the current allowable densities of the plan? It's very unworkable as it appears right now.
What is an example of a system that has worked?
Right up the road in Manatee County, they have a very successful incentive-based inclusionary zoning program. They've reduced processing times, provided fee reductions and other things that are yielding major increases in applications to provide affordable housing.
Is the community housing trust another possible solution?
The community housing trust has some potential. But they're only talking about building 300 units a year. And the University of Florida Shimberg Center [for Affordable Housing] reported that the problem is growing by 600 units a year, and I think that estimate is low. So, even if they build 3,000 units in ten years, which is their goal, and if nothing else is done, we'll be further behind in ten years.
How can local governments encourage developers to build affordable housing?
You just cannot provide workforce priced housing without some incentives or elimination of disincentives that exist in current zoning, permit processes and fees. It's those three things the government can do something about.
They need massive zoning reforms. They need to be willing to see the bigger picture here from the impact of the baby boom scenario to land costs to the adverse effects that low density and the urban boundary combined together are having on housing costs in combination with higher construction costs. It's a perfect storm situation that's developed.
Aside from rising material costs, what's another lasting impact from the last two hurricane seasons?
Labor cost. Within a short amount of time there's suddenly so much more work to be done to replace the homes that have been destroyed. Sarasota's unemployment rate is [about] 2.3% and I think Manatee's is 2.5 or 2.7%. So, it doesn't take but another buck an hour to move an employee from one roofing company to another sometimes.
Workforce shortage is predicted to be a growing problem for the building industry. How big of a concern is it?
It's certainly an issue in regions with a fair amount of construction going on like Florida. The Suncoast Workforce Board had a study done two years ago, and they showed that our region, Sarasota-Manatee, is expected to have a 15,000 worker shortage by 2010.
What's a solution to that problem?
Long-term, we really need to address the issue as early as middle school with the introduction of modernized shop programs, which can then be feeder programs for [Sarasota County Technical Institute] or [Manatee Technical Institute].
What statewide legislative issues are important to builders and developers in the upcoming year?
One is technical education for high school students and adults. On a high school level, we have a lot of concerns about how the whole funding system is set up. Right now, guidance counselors are being rewarded for how many college scholarships they help students get. They're not rewarded for encouraging students to go to technical school. The schools lose money for doing that.
And what happens is these kids end up out of high school without skills. About 70% of kids are not going to college or at least not graduating from college. You've got to provide other options for them.
How can the government encourage more high school students to go into the trade?
It really won't take that much more funding, it's just changing the way the funding is allocated so there's not a disincentive for high schools to encourage some of their students to go to technical schools for part of the day. It's getting the system changed so the high school principals and guidance counselors put these programs in front of the students.
What's another important legislative issue of concern to your group?
Road funding. We're not getting our fair share of road dollars coming back to our area. The state's strategy, what they call the Strategic Intermodal program, prioritizes road projects that support airports, rail facilities and port facilities, which in it of itself isn't a bad thing. But what people are coming to realize is that a lot of urban areas that need the road capacity are not getting the funding to do it. And so, it's falling more and more to local government to provide road capacity that otherwise would be provided by state and federal dollars.
How does the GCBE plan to address Sarasota County's proposed amendments to the zoning code?
We're putting together a group to oppose the proposed Sarasota County amendments that include people from Habitat for Humanity, the New Town Committee, from South County, Siesta Key and from all over the county. These are not just business groups but community groups that understand this set of proposed charter amendments will have a detrimental effect on the housing economy.
In the last few years, big national builders have made their presence known in Florida. Is this a trend that we should expect to continue?
I think you're going to see more of it. But maybe only to a point in our area because there are very little large parcels left. So, you may see it more in surrounding counties, like in the Babcock Ranch project and some other North Port projects.
What are other industry trends that you see for the next years?
What we're hearing from the state is they're seeing more Developments of Regional Impact [which are large developments whose impact is felt across county lines] in inland counties than they've ever seen before. Development is being forced away from the coast because of high land costs and urban boundaries. So developers are forced to go elsewhere if they want larger parcels where they get economies of scale and meet the needs for workforce housing.