Finding a Housing Solution for Palm Beach County

Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest counties east of the Mississippi River, faced an economic problem: the high cost of housing impeded employers’ recruitment efforts. The county faced a shortage of school bus drivers; teachers were leaving the district for lower-cost areas to the north; even the city’s planning department lost a top recruit due to high housing costs. When workers need to commute from two counties away in order to find affordable housing, looking for work closer to home makes sense.

Palm Beach County decided to see what it could do to lower housing costs and retain workers. A task force with representation from employers, real estate agents, builders, planners, and the affordable housing community worked together to create an inclusionary housing program that would increase the housing stock for moderate-income workers while offering sufficient incentives to developers. They knew that if they did not ensure continued profitability for developers, they might alienate this important partner and even slow broader development in the county.

The county’s Workforce Housing Program was adopted in 2006, just before the economic crash of 2008. Given the dire economic circumstances, it would have been easy for the county to clear the program from the books and hope for development of housing for any income level to resume. Yet the broad representation on the task force and the gravitas of the program’s profitability analysis gave the County Commissioners the courage to persist through the crisis, making only modest changes. Indeed, when housing came back, the program was still standing.

Though home prices and rents in the county have risen in the years since the end of the Great Recession, wages are not keeping pace, and high housing costs are back on the front page of the paper. Thanks to the Workforce Housing Program, however, a portion of all new development in the county’s vast unincorporated areas is affordable for workers earning average salaries.

Under the Workforce Housing Program, the county has added more than 700 affordable units in ten developments. A similar number of affordable units are in the pipeline, and the county has collected nearly $900,000 in in-lieu fees for its Workforce Housing Trust Fund.

In recognition of the program’s impact and its staying power during the recession, Palm Beach County was awarded a 2015 Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Award by the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.

Palm Beach County’s employee recruitment and retention crisis is not unique. When a mismatch between wages and housing costs sends workers packing, bringing housing costs down may be the solution. And when the policy is crafted by a representative coalition, with a research base behind it, it is possible to find an effective solution that balances the needs of the development community with those of employers and workers.