The "Missing Middle" of Southwest Florida

Advocacy & Policy ,

The “Missing Middle” of Southwest Florida

It’s no secret that Southwest Florida has a large population of affluent individuals. In fact, Southwest Florida is home to six billionaires and Naples ranks amongst the richest cities in Florida. Southwest Florida’s population is made up of the one percent and beyond. But they are not the only people to call Naples, Fort Myers and Bonit­­a Springs home. The middle-class are also proud residents.

But where is and who are Southwest Florida’s middle class? The middle class is made up of normal people. For example, let’s call one of these ‘normal’ people Natalie. Natalie is college-educated. She graduated from an accredited university with her Bachelor of Science in Accounting. She is 26 years old and has been working at a firm in Naples for over two years, making $60,000 annually, which is above the industry average. Natalie is currently renting an apartment with roommates, she has a small amount of student loan debt and is frugal in her spending, rarely eating out and indulging in weekends away.

Nearing her 30’s, she is tired of living with a roommate and is ready to move out to a one-bedroom apartment to have for herself or purchase her own home. However, there’s a problem. Frankly, there are several.

Finding affordable housing in Southwest Florida has become increasingly difficult for those trying to make ends meet. In a recent article from Gulfshore Business, “According to the Urban Land Institute, it's especially hard in Collier County, where the average monthly rental costs about $1,500. Even more sobering, 61.4% of jobs in Collier pay less than $33,250 per year, while the average monthly rental cost hovers over $1,500 a month, and the average home price is more than $341,000.”

Not only are homes too pricey for Natalie, but so is the average rent. Rent prices have been rapidly increasing in Southwest Florida according to ApartmentList.com. The data shows a nearly 28 percent jump in rent prices in Florida from October 2020 and in Naples, the increase is even higher. The report shows rental prices jumped from an average $1,544 per month to $2,302 per month — a 49.1 percent increase.

A solution to Natalie’s housing crisis – a crisis that affects a significant number of people in Southwest Florida – is to provide more workforce housing options thereby increasing the supply of housing in Southwest Florida. Workforce housing is defined by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) as housing affordable to households earning between 60 and 120 percent of area median income (AMI). Workforce housing targets middle-income workers which include professionals such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, health care workers, retail clerks and the like (Parlow, 2015).

Workforce housing is often misconstrued as affordable housing. However, households who need workforce housing may not always qualify for housing subsidized by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program or the Housing Choice Vouchers program, which are two major programs in place for addressing affordable housing needs. Because the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are confused for one another, and workforce housing sparks a debate in the community.  

If it’s people like Natalie that are for and need workforce housing, then who is against it? The anti-workforce housing and anti-density discussions are influenced by several factors. High demand for housing in gorgeous Southwest Florida (often by retirees with a lifetime of equity that outprices the budget of our incoming workforce), high building costs, not-in-my-backyarders who support new housing – but only if we put it somewhere far away from them –and zoning and density policy that make it difficult for developers to create the kind of housing that could fix this issue.

Now, the purpose behind bringing Natalie’s struggles to light is not to point fingers and to play the blame game, but to draw attention to a housing crisis that is plaguing Southwest Florida’s “Missing Middle” – the nurses, firefighters and teachers we all need no matter the level of income to make our community a beautiful place to not just live but thrive.

At SWFL Inc., our vision is to build a vibrant and prosperous community in Southwest Florida where businesses and people succeed. Every policy, program and challenge we take supports that vision. We support workforce housing and believe Southwest Florida needs more market-rate homes that are affordable for the general workforce.

Our team at SWFL Inc. is working actively with local leaders to change the land development code that will permit an increase in workforce housing. To do this, we’re advocating for policy that allows for ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), increases in density, reduces building costs and supports both public and private initiatives that offer incentives to plan and build workforce housing.

If you’re interested in learning more about SWFL Inc.’s 2022 Legislative Agenda, visit SWFLinc.com/economic-development. You can also contact Josh Goergen, our Government Relations Manager, to learn more about workforce housing and how you can join us in our workforce housing advocacy efforts. He can be reached at (239) 992-2943 or [email protected].