We Need More Homes and Apartments in Palm Coast. A Lot More.

The view from the author’s backyard in Palm Coast’s P-Section: a Horton home under construction, and car speeding down Point Pleasant Drive, beyond which a 35-acre spread of scrubland is about to be leveld to make way for a 72-home subdivision. (© FlaglerLive)

Three years ago I waxed gas-station poetic about the leveling of a lot facing our home. After a decade of calm on our P-Section street, where half the lots were still wild, the bulldozers had arrived. The idyll was over. Since then it’s been all carpet-bombing: a dozen lots in front, in back and to the side of the house have been leveled, housed up and, with two exceptions of supply-chain hostages, occupied by new residents marking their territory with gas-guzzlers hulking driveways and welcome signs stabbing the ground. That’s just a start.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive No complaints. It was bound to happen, by right, once the housing crash of 2008 had been exorcized. Gas-guzzlers aside (heretics that we are, we park our fossil-fueled Renner-mobiles in the garage) my family and I were those very people. We moved into our little Versailles the Year of the Crash, saying goodbye to our rental in the Woodlands to take advantage of a house-flipper who’d overshot his greed.

Whatever the circumstances may be, no Palm Coast homeowners have a leg to stand on when arguing that others behind them shouldn’t be welcome, that there’s too much development, that new development is incompatible with old development. Not unless they’re expropriated Timucua Indians.

It may look like “overdevelopment” to those reaping the fruit of the previous wave of overdevelopment. But most of the time the opposition is just selfishness or prejudice wrapped in sanctimony about preserving neighborhoods or property values. The development fate of every square inch of Palm Coast was determined years ago: single family homes here, apartments there, businesses over there. Developers are merely filling in the blanks with the occasional high-profile land-use change.

They’re not doing it fast enough. Prices are too high because too few homes are being built, not too many. We have a serious housing shortage in this country, an even more serious one in Palm Coast. “Last year,” The New York Times reported this month, “Freddie Mac estimated the nation’s housing supply deficit at 3.8 million units, up from 2.5 million in 2018. Other analysts come up with different figures, but pretty much everyone agrees that the country hasn’t been building nearly enough homes to keep up with demand, especially for middle and lower-income families. The failure to build those units is the single biggest contributor to the affordability crisis that in recent years has spread from a few coastal cities to a much larger swath of the country.”

The problem right now in Palm Coast is affordability. The median price for a home is a ridiculous $400,000, double what it was four years ago. A one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,500, double what my mortgage used to be when I bought into the P-Section. The housing supply is down to a historic six weeks’ worth of inventory, according to the Flagler County Association of Realtors. Buyers are bidding up the prices of homes. For Sale signs are like Palm Coast’s famed bobcat apparitions, gone before you see them.

That’s what a housing shortage looks like, and what opposition to higher densities looks like. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not fair to young families or students who want to live here. Higher interest rates are not helping. They’re not just hurting buyers at the lower end of the mortgage affordability scale. They’re hurting builders large and small, who pull back to protect investments and ward off overextension, further adding to the housing crunch.

There’s nothing we can do about higher interest rates. They’ve been artificially low for too long anyway, manufacturing an illusion of false prosperity that has yet to trickle down to those who can use it most: the middle and working class looking to move into a place of their own.

ocd flaglerliveBut there’s plenty we can do locally to mitigate the shortage and the higher rates. Short of underwriting the cost of affordable housing–a gaping absence in this state, thanks to GOP’s recurring thefts of the housing trust fund intended to do just that–local governments should be helping builders instead give in to NIMBYism. Even when the backlash from existing residents isn’t successful, it’s fierce enough that it turns development into some kind of blasphemy, making developers more hesitant to break ground, and again contributing to the crunch. Prices rise. Affordable housing becomes a lost cause.

There’s plenty of deserved criticism for developers and builders (what industry doesn’t have its rakes?) From the look of our assembly-line homes, many Florida developers seem to have an aversion to aesthetics. Developers’ PR is can use some help. Instead of making the case for the affordability they can enable, they tend to come off like latter-day khans who level and cube up lots as fast as possible, bitch and moan about paying their fair share in development impact fees, then move on.

In Flagler, builders’ and developers’ guerilla war on schools’ impact fees–whether they’re needed immediately or in 18 or 36 months makes no difference: they’re needed–makes them look greedy and short-sighted over a few thousand dollars in an environment of $400,000 homes. Developers’ amen corner at the County Commission isn’t helping. They should be championing higher impact fees, roomier schools, a better school district, all of which draws more residents by the trainload. Look at St. Johns County: far higher impact fees, and the best school district in the state year after year.

But impact fees are a sideshow, the sort of thing that makes it difficult to champion developers’ cause without a bad taste in one’s mouth. That distaste pales compared to the way some existing residents speak ill of people who live in apartments (or mobile homes!), who make up stories about crime around apartment complexes, who consider lots smaller than the quarter-acre standard an offense against their Euclidean cult, or who think traffic on urban roads should not behave like traffic on urban roads. Palm Coast is not a village, people. It’s not going to make a difference if Old Kings Road is built up parcel by parcel over 20 years or built up more rapidly over five. The end result is the same. And Old Kings Road will be four-laned before it fronts the Atlantic. Guaranteed.

Developers, for their part, are literally entitled to do what they’re doing. In the 1960s ITT conceived Palm Coast as a city of 600,000. Thankfully we’re not even a sixth of the way there and we won’t get there before the ocean laps at our neighborhoods anyway. But let’s not turn into a gated community on the way there. Bad enough that Palm Coast has yet to transform itself from a soulless sprawl into an actual city worth the name. Why encourage more of the same?

There’s a strong argument to be made against the sacredness of single family homes and for higher densities: land is a limited resource. Apartments are not the enemy. Nor are smaller lots and smaller homes, if that’s what people prefer. People moving into Palm Coast tend to be older. They’re scaling down. Existing residents should not have a veto on the desires of those future residents. It’s hypocritical and untenable. That’s what makes Palm Coast City Council member Eddie Branquinho’s ideological opposition to density absurd, like his outdated claim that it’s turning Palm Coast into Newark. We should be so lucky: Newark is experiencing such a renaissance that it’s gentrifying the city.

So let’s not be California liberals, where left-wing sensibilities are all about taking care of the less fortunate until a developer proposes an apartment complex next door, when all hell breaks loose and the state adds to its second-to-none homeless catastrophe. (A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle last September said it all: “Why California Liberals Turn Into Raging Conservatives Over Housing.”)

We need more homes and more apartments, in our backyards. I speak literally of my own. Before long, one of the last remaining expanses of scrubland in the P-Section, a 35-acre spread whose trees loom beyond my kitchen window, will be replaced by a 72-home subdivision. The slash-and-burn plans are making their way through the city’s regulatory steps as we speak. Once that mini-forest of free oxygen is replaced by the blacks and grays of heat-seeking shingles, it’ll give the lie to what is currently known as Point Pleasant Drive.

But we need those homes and many, many more like them, along with apartment complexes. What we need less of is prejudice and hypocritical gate-keeping.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. a version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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