Workers Can't Find Affordable Housing; It's a Problem for Many Area Employees

Article excerpt

Byline: MARY HURST

Editor's note: This is the first story in "The Cost of Living," an occasional series looking at the need for affordable housing in Nassau County and solutions to the problem.

When Amelia Island Plantation management began working with the government of Barbados to bring in seasonal employees to work for the resort, they decided to find their workers an affordable place to live.

They couldn't.

Everything was more than the workers could afford. Anything less than a seventh-month lease is considered short-term vacation rentals, for which renters are charged a premium. Leases less than one year are difficult to find.

Everywhere they looked over the past few years, human resources personnel also found area apartments were being converted to condominiums, which made it worse.

So, when a former motel on U.S. 17 South went on the market two years ago, the resort bought it.

Plantation officials say it is perfect for the seasonal workers who live in a motel efficiency, most with a kitchen or a microwave oven. There are two laundry rooms, and they also have access to a house on the premises with a large kitchen.

There is a lounge for the workers with Internet access, couches and chairs and a dining room. A resort van picks them up and drops them off for their shift. They have phones in their rooms and can use international phone cards to make phone calls home.

The resort charges the workers a small amount to help offset program costs and workers know what their cost will be before they come from Barbados.

"It's a reasonable amount to help cover our expenses but we are not making a profit on this," Tonda Tan, Amelia Island Plantation's director of human resources, said. "We try to break even. We had to do something to help."

A 'DESPERATE' NEED

Tan said affordable rental and workforce housing is a desperate need in Nassau County and unless officials and developers work together to build housing that people can afford, the situation will not be getting any better.

The resort is dependent on foreign workers because they have difficulty finding enough American workers to do landscaping and housekeeping, but it's not just businesses with seasonal workers that are having problems with employees not being able to find affordable places to live.

Businesses in Nassau County offering service-sector jobs, such as store clerks and hospitality workers, are facing the same problem. Law enforcement agencies and the School Board would also like to see housing that costs less to rent or buy.

Regina Duncan, Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the chamber formed an affordable housing task force last year in response to an annual membership survey, which identified lack of affordable housing for the workforce as one of the top priorities chamber members wanted staff to look into.

"We recognize that it's a problem for our members getting and retaining employees," Duncan said. "I don't think the members expect the government to provide housing but, in our research, we've found that some proposals call for public-private partnerships."

The task force is reconvening at the end of February and expects to issue a final report mid-year, she said.

When chamber members go to Tallahassee later this month, they will take their concerns about workforce housing to the Legislature as well, she said.

EFFORTS BEING MADE

Duncan said there is a great need for public-private partnerships in Nassau. And although they are slow in coming, there are several efforts in place or under way.

Nassau Club Apartments in Nassauville was built through a program which gives developers tax credits for building and renting apartments at below-market rents.

The apartments range from $590 per month for a one-bedroom for a person earning $25,000 or less to a four-bedroom unit for $876 for a family of eight earning $48,000 or less. …