Facing a deadly pandemic and a fast-growing region, Sarasota Memorial Health Care needs nurses to help staff its hospitals and health care centers.
But in just one week last month, three prospects rejected offers one after the other. Why? They started researching the housing market.
“They are in sticker shock,” said Laurie Bennett, vice president of human resources. The job candidates frequently say they can't afford to live here, Bennett said, though in many cases the open positions are not entry-level and come with annual salaries between $40,000 and $50,000.
Affordable housing was a term once mainly discussed for the very poor or disabled receiving Section 8 or other government help. Now, some of the area's largest employers warn that Sarasota and Manatee's affordable housing problem is not just an issue for residents worried about soaring rents and home prices, it has also blown into a broad-based business crisis that impacts jobs and broad sectors of the local economy.
Lisa Krouse is president and CEO of the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation.
In a recent survey, the Economic Development Council of Sarasota County asked its members to rank their top priorities and concerns. Affordable housing came out clearly on top, said Lisa Krouse, president and CEO.
“That is extremely telling about how businesses are feeling, what they are experiencing and what they need help with,” Krouse said. “I don’t think there is a sector that is immune.”
INDICATORS:Lack of affordable housing also affects the business community
In 2021, apartment rents in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area rose by 44.3%, according to apartmentlist.com. By comparison, from 2017 through 2020 the average increase was just 1.5% per year.
Home prices rose by more than 33% last year, well over double the national average, according to CoreLogic.
After Sarasota County staff recommended spending just $5 million on affordable housing from the $84 million the county was receiving in federal COVID-19 relief funds, a coalition of local advocates helped persuade the County Commission to increase that to $25 million.
Business leaders from a variety of industries were among those asking for help.
'Is that where we want to go as a community?'
“When we were consistently seeing clients with huge rent increases of $600 a month or $900 a month – you can’t even plan for that,” said Ashley Brown, chief executive officer of the Women’s Resource Center, a nonprofit that serves thousands of women in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
In a conference call with other nonprofits, Brown was disturbed to hear that some caseworkers were advising clients to look for jobs outside the area.
Ashley Brown is president and CEO of the Women's Resource Center.
“Is that where we want to go as a community?” Brown said. “That was one of those sobering statements.”
Brown was instrumental in assembling the coalition that appeared before the Sarasota County Commission.
“We knew this was an issue for our clients, and we were curious how the businesses were being affected, too,” Brown said.
She knew that the issue went beyond social services. If workers are priced out and forced to move, the ripple effect will eventually hit the residents who depend on the industries and services those workers are leaving.
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“This is bigger than a group of people who can’t afford housing,” Brown said. “This is going to start impacting how we live.”
'I can't afford to stay here'
At Sarasota Memorial Health Care – the county’s largest employer – recruiters struggle to fill the hospital system’s 1,000 open posts, said Bennett, vice president of human resources.
That's in large part because prospective employees find that they can’t afford to live here, she said.
Adding to the challenge for recruiters, she said, is the fact that the pool of candidates has dried up, with traffic to the jobs page of the hospital’s website dropping off dramatically since August – a trend her team also attributes to housing costs.
The news 110-bed Sarasota Memorial Hospital Venice Campus
The squeeze is not just impacting the decisions of prospective employees – current staff members are affected, too. At least one registered nurse quit in late January after receiving a two-month notice that her south county rent was set to rise from $1,200 to $1,800 a month.
“She said, ‘I’m going to have to resign. I can’t afford to stay here,’” Bennett recalled.
An administrative assistant told Bennett that it now takes almost two paychecks to meet her rent, saying “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold on.”
While Bennett is confident that the housing crisis has not affected the hospital system’s qualify of care as it underwent recent expansions, she is concerned about its ability to stay competitive. Skilled health workers are in high demand and short supply throughout the country, particularly after hardships brought on by the pandemic.
Though she’s optimistic about talks among county leaders and philanthropic partners for solutions, it’s the immediate present on her mind.
“I do worry about the short-term – how do we fill all of our positions?” she said. “It’s going to be tough until some of those longer-term strategies kick in.”
Affordable housing a 'significant factor' in business decisions
The affordable housing crisis is also playing a role in industrial business decisions, including those of PGT Innovations, Sarasota County's largest private employer.
Last year the Venice-based manufacturer of windows and doors announced plans to expand with a manufacturing facility near Fort Myers – one that would generate 240 jobs.
A big factor in the decision to expand in Lee County was a shortage of workers near the company's Venice plant – driven, the company believes, by a shortage in affordable housing, according to Debbie LaPinska, PGT's chief human resources officer.
Workers assemble windows at PGT Innovations in 2021.
The company has sought to offset community challenges for its employees by offering an on-site wellness center and, more recently, subsidized childcare.
"However, the affordable housing issue is one that we have not been able to overcome on our own," LaPinska said.
Already, many of its employees commute from as far away as North Port, Englewood, Port Charlotte and even Punta Gorda.
Sarasota County's housing costs make it extremely challenging to recruit skilled workers, she said, forcing the company to relocate people from outside Florida, only to lose them once they get here and can't find housing.
Those who do stay struggle for long periods before they pin down anything affordable – including one member of the maintenance team who lived in a hotel for months.
While the company said it is committed to staying in Sarasota County and has no plans to relocate, the lack of workforce – in part due to the affordable housing shortage – is a "significant factor" in its decision to expand manufacturing operations someplace else.
'It is absolutely slowing down the growth of industry in Sarasota County'
Construction trades are feeling the impact, too.
Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and part of the group that spoke before the commission, said her members describe stalled projects due to a shortage of workers.
“That is lost capital investment in our local economy if that project doesn’t go forward,” she said.
Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange
In the past, many people associated the crisis in affordable housing as an issue only for residents on fixed or very low incomes, Dougherty added.
“But now we recognize that it’s a problem for business and has a domino effect for our local economy,” Dougherty said. “Lots of people are coming together to talk about this.”
INDICATORS:Lack of affordable housing adds pressure to business recruitment, retention
Like other major employers, Willis Smith Construction, a commercial construction firm, has run into recruitment challenges because of the area’s housing costs, said CEO David Sessions.
His team courts new prospects at construction management programs at the University of Florida and other institutions.
“We’ve had a couple of them specifically say that the cost of living, the cost of housing is so great that they decided to go elsewhere,” Sessions said. “We lost a couple of potential future employees specifically because of that.”
The high housing costs threaten a key mission of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County – to develop a diverse economy and range of jobs to complement the dominant low–wage hospitality sector.
Erin Silk, EDC’s vice-president of business development services, hears from companies that have been here for 15 or 20 years and have workers who are getting priced out of the housing market.
“It’s keeping companies from being able to expand. We hear it constantly. They would be able to do more output if they can hire the staff,” Silk said. “It is absolutely slowing down the growth of industry in Sarasota County.”
'Come together and focus on common goals'
All of those interviewed for this story expressed hope and confidence in the area’s public-private partnerships, its proactive philanthropic foundations, and in public officials to tackle the problem.
That was especially the case for one of the area’s biggest employers – Sarasota County Schools.
Allison Foster, executive director of human resources and labor relations at Sarasota schools, was excited about the expected opening this year of Lofts on Lemon – a private-public affordable and workforce housing endeavor with units set aside for professionals, like teachers.
“We have so many great foundations and community partners, hopefully we can continue to explore how to produce even more units to help offset the cost of housing for people who are moving to work in our community,” Foster said.
In the meantime, the school system is facing the same challenge as other employers.
Though the district offers one of the highest starting teaching salaries in the state, it’s not enough to compensate for high home and rent prices.
“Even though we’re paying more, the cost of living is higher than other parts of the state,” Foster said.
Like the others, the district’s recruiters have frequently been turned down by prospective candidates following job fairs with graduates at universities throughout Florida.
“This is a new thing we are dealing with constantly,” she said.
Brown, of the Women’s Resource Center, said the coalition’s intention at the county commission meeting was to push the conversation beyond quick-fix rental and mortgage assistance programs.
The long-term goal was to capitalize on this one-time federal relief grant, to seize every opportunity possible as a community to increase the inventory of affordable housing.
Growth in the affordable housing stock is key, Brown said, if a broad swath of individuals, families and local businesses is to thrive.
“I think the more we come together and focus on common goals,” Brown said, “the better chance we have for making systemic changes.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.