Let’s start with some good news: in 12 to 36 months, the massive housing crisis hurting Bay County will improve.Not only will more homes be rebuilt and ready for sale or rent, but a slate of new apartments, townhomes and houses should be ready to go from St. Joe Company, DR Horton, and others.
“The construction is going. It’s wide open,” said Carol Roberts, the president and CEO of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce.Becca Hardin, the president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance, said she sees an even faster turnaround time. Her number? About eight months. Unfortunately, cities, employers and residents are going to have to hang on until then. Right now, things are grim. Last year, Hurricane Michael destroyed 70 percent of the structures in Mexico Beach, flattened Tyndall Air Force Base and damaged nearly every home and apartment on the east side of Bay County. The airman and civilian contractors, who worked at the base, shopped in town and in many cases bought or rented homes in Bay County, are gone. Thankfully, the federal government is rebuilding the base and has promised to send in several wings of fighter jets once things are up and running. While the construction has begun it will more than likely still be several years before the base is fully operational again. Many of the people who worked low paying jobs and got by thanks to affordable housing are also gone. And, even some of those with better-paying jobs decided they did not want to rebuild in town, choosing instead to take an insurance payout and make a new start somewhere else. The bedroom communities around the base had a steep loss in population. Current estimates say Callaway, Springfield, and Parker all lost about 20 percent of their residents. Mexico Beach lost 50 percent. Panama City lost 11 percent and Lynn Haven lost 8 percent. The population loss, coupled with the destruction of affordable housing led to a steep rise in rent prices on nearly everything that was left. Local rents went from less than $1,000 to more than $1,500 and even as much as $2,000. That might seem like an obvious price-gouging situation (Bay County is still under a State of Emergency). The Florida Attorney General’s Office is in charge of price gouging. Attorney General Ashley Moody has not, so far, charged a single landlord with a crime. The housing crisis leaves local cities in a bind. The loss of people and damage to property means a loss of property tax revenue. Facing this loss, cities can either cut back on services, eliminate jobs or raise taxes. Panama City responded by raising taxes. That brought an angry response from some residents, but Mayor Greg Brudnicki and the city council were adamant a 27 percent increase is necessary.
“If everybody’s taxes here went up twenty-seven and a half percent, you guys wouldn’t be re-elected,” one resident said during last week’s city council meeting. “What the heck are you guys doing to justify that much money increase?”Mayor Greg Brudnicki’s response: “We have to fix the city.” The effects of the housing crises are felt everywhere. Shops and restaurants close early because they don’t have enough employees to stay open. Major employers are still staying afloat but many of their employees are driving into the county from as far away as Tallahassee, Hardin said. It is felt most acutely in the Bay District school system. District spokeswoman Sharon Michalik said their hiring process has become a revolving door. A teacher or other employee is hired. Everyone agrees on the salary. Then the prospective employee starts looking for housing. And then they change their minds.
“People find out how much the rents are here and simply can’t afford to move,” Michalik said.As of last week, the district was still looking to hire 20 teachers and another passel of part-time and full-time support jobs.
“Our maintenance department down 15 people right now and the District is full of maintenance issues,” Michalik said.Starting teachers make $36,000 a year. The average salary in Bay County is about $37,500.
“Someone who is in that salary range simply can’t afford to pay $2,000 a month,” Michalik said.And a large raise for workers, either from the school system or the private sector seems unlikely. Life in a post-Hurricane Michael world is full of problems that need solutions. District employees have faced those problems and done their best to solve them, Michalik added. This one is different.
“This housing crisis is beyond our circle of control,” she said. “This is what is holding us back.”Hardin and Roberts agreed that the housing crisis is stalling the recovery. Although they both see a community on the cusp of revitalization. Hardin said the EDA has several companies that have either just opened or are in the process of opening on the east side of Bay County. Roberts noted the large rise in construction companies following the storm. There were some bad apples, sure, but there are also several companies who have put down roots and are here to stay.
“Stay positive. Stay the course and work together,” Roberts said. “Become a part of the change and get involved.”State Representative Jay Trumbull, (R-Panama City) is well aware of the problems and he told The News Service of Florida that he and other legislators are getting together now to seek solutions. He said he’s confident that another round of hurricane relief funding will come out of the next legislative session. That session begins in January.
S. Brady Calhoun, Faith Graham, Erika Orstad, WMBB News Channel 13