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How We Got Here: Hillsborough County's Growing Housing Affordability Crisis

High above downtown Tampa, giant construction cranes tower near what will become the city’s newest offering in luxury living. The project - 815 Water Street - will feature two towers of apartments and condominiums replete with amenities such as a rooftop bar, fitness center and a ground-level grocery store.

But drive just two miles west, and you will find the bulldozed cinder block remains of what used to be North Boulevard Homes, Tampa’s oldest public housing complex.

It’s a very real example that as the city’s skyline continues to grow, access to affordable housing in Hillsborough County is shrinking.

A Perfect Storm For Unaffordability

Housing experts point to a perfect storm of events for the county’s growing home affordability crisis, and say that several key issues are responsible for driving up prices. First, there is simply not enough federal or state assistance for the lowest income people. Also wages are stagnant and Florida’s population is booming.


"Hillsborough County is growing fairly rapidly,” said Terry Eagan, a project manager at Plan Hillsborough, an agency tasked with managing the county’s development. “Since at least 2013, we’ve added the equivalent of one (city of) Temple Terrace every year. So we're adding 28,000 people every year.”

According to the latest data from the U.S Census Bureau, 1,408,566 people live in Hillsborough County. Since the 2010 census, that population has increased by more than 14 percent.

"People are going to continue to move to Sun Belt cities,” said Eagan. “Miami and Pinellas Counties are fairly well built out. They're not going to be absorbing this population. Hillsborough County is one of the counties that is going to be absorbing this population."

Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A new public housing complex is being built where North Boulevard Homes once was.

Under its current land use plan, the county has 52,000 acres of vacant and redevelopable land. The agency projects an additional 714,000 people will move to Hillsborough County by 2045. 

But where will all these newcomers find housing?

New home construction is picking up, but it’s nowhere near the housing boom of the early to mid-2000’s. In 2005, Hillsborough County issued 17,000 building permits. In 2009, it was less than 4,000.

“Once the recession hit, a lot of laborers left the market,” said Eagan. “Not only did you lose the workforce, you lost several major homemakers. That has created a void as well.”

While the market is recovering, it’s not addressing the demand for housing that’s affordable for most of its residents. The majority of new construction in Hillsborough County, especially in Tampa city limits, has been for upper end luxury housing.  Many of these units are too expensive for even middle-income earners like teachers, police officers, and customer service representatives.

And it’s not like workers can make up the difference, even in a booming economy. Although Florida’s unemployment rate is at historic lows, just 2.9 percent in Hillsborough County, the state’s still lags the nation in overall pay. Between 2005 and 2016, almost half of all new employment in Florida were in the low-wage sector.

That trend will continue, according to labor economist Mark Price.

“And that precisely influences the kind of house you can buy and the struggles that you're going to face in terms of meeting your rent or your mortgage payments,” he said. “As inequality gets worse, the challenge you face in terms of finding the kind of house you want, in the neighborhood you want, with the kind of good schools you want for your children, is just going to get more difficult."

In a study Price co-authored for the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, researchers found that Florida has the second largest income inequality gap in the country. In Hillsborough County, the top 1 percent of its residents earns 28.7 percent more than the bottom 99.

"That will sometimes mean that you get lower quality investments or no investment in more affordable housing,” said Price. “That can be a real challenge for families because it means that existing housing prices will go up further and existing rents will rise, pushing a lot of people out.”

Credit Steve Madden for WUSF Public Media

Half Of Local Renters ‘Severely’ Burdened By Housing Costs

With a scarcity of affordable housing stock, the number of people experiencing what experts call “cost burden” is growing in Hillsborough County. The term is generally defined as a household spending more than 30 percent of income on housing.  According to data from the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, 30 percent of all residents in Hillsborough County are cost burdened. For low-income people, those earning less than the area median income, the problem is even greater: 50 percent of renters in Hillsborough County are severely cost burdened, meaning that housing takes up more than half of their income. One of the reasons that there’s such a squeeze at the lower end, is because Hillsborough County has a lot more middle and moderate households renting. 

While many of the county’s poorest residents qualify for federal subsidies, eligibility doesn’t offer guaranteed assistance. Nationally, only 1 in 4 households that qualify for housing assistance receives any, according to Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In NLIHC’s annual report, “Out of Reach,” the organization notes that there is no state, metropolitan area, or county in America, where a worker earning the federal minimum wage or prevailing state minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour week. In Hillsborough County, a minimum wage worker would need to work 97 hours a week to afford a place at the current fair market rent.

"As inequality gets worse, the challenge you face in terms of finding the kind of house you want, in the neighborhood you want, with the kind of good schools you want for your children, is just going to get more difficult." - Mark Price

Yentel says federal spending on housing assistance fluctuates. Some years, funding is more robust than others, but Yentel says it’s never returned to the peak levels seen in the early 1970s.

'As inequality gets worse, the challenge you face in terms of finding the kind of house you want, in the neighborhood you want, with the kind of good schools you want for your children, is just going to get more difficult.' - Mark Price

“That was a time when there was actually a surplus of affordable homes available to the lowest income people,” she said. In 1973, the Nixon administration suspended all subsidized housing programs and a moratorium was placed on the construction of any more public housing units.

“We stopped building them back then and in the early 1980’s, under Ronald Reagan’s administration, HUD’s budget was cut by more than half,” Yentel said. “Since that time, new housing programs have been developed but none have been as fully funded as they were back then. Today, federal housing programs serve about 5 million low income people but the needs of millions more goes unmet, which is why we have increasing housing insecurity across the country and in some communities, increasing homelessness.”

According to the NLIHC, between 2000 and 2015, Florida’s total rental housing stock grew by 859,202 units, but only 133,527, or 15.5 percent, were affordable to low-income renters. The state only has 26 units of affordable and available housing units for every 100 extremely low-income households.

So, in Hillsborough County's constricted housing market, poorer families have to compete with the middle class for available units. Yentel compares it to a kind of game of musical chairs. The people that are left standing when the music stops, are the community's most vulnerable.

Want to learn more about the terms behind affordable housing? Check out our glossary here.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.