Many nights when Rachel Peace leaves her Manatee County office at Windward Design Group, she can see the company’s factory workers still waiting for rides or public transportation to North Port and Palmetto, hours after the end of their shifts.
In the company’s corporate offices, several entry-level mid-management positions sit empty, job candidates put off by the cost of housing nearby.
Both scenarios stem from the same problem, said Peace, Windward’s chief information officer: a dire shortage of workforce housing. It has cut into the advantage that the family-owned company should have had as a domestic designer and manufacturer of patio furniture amid worldwide supply issues.
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“It is very costly for us not to have affordable housing in this area,” Peace said. “It definitely has slowed down our opportunities for growth.”
Windward’s plight has become increasingly common for area employers. Hospitals, schools and private industry all have reported a crisis in retaining and recruiting workers due to the rapid increase in cost and low supply of housing.
Despite steady salary increases for employees, Windward, like many businesses, has not been able to keep up with the rising cost of housing. In the Sarasota area for 32 years, Windward has had to overhaul its technological infrastructure to allow more remote work and hire temp workers to fill office positions.
Now local builder One Stop Housing is offering a promising solution – one that area business leaders believe could become a nationwide model. It involves employers getting involved in supplying housing, and already more than a dozen local businesses are considering getting involved.
Employer-supported housing will ‘benefit everybody’
Sarasota-based One Stop Housing develops, builds and manages affordable rental units for the workforce population.
For the past year, Mark Vengroff, One Stop’s managing partner, has been working closely with the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation on his innovative housing plan that involves employers.
Similar to the company towns of the past and big-tech campuses of today, the plan envisions low-cost communities where workers would have childcare on-site along with easy access to shopping, medical facilities and transportation to their jobs.
“We are able to come in and partner with them and other employers to build these communities,” said Vengroff.
Employers, big and small, would provide the investment, while One Stop would do the work – developing, building and managing the properties based on a similar model it has crafted during decades in the business.
Not only would employers own stable housing for their workers; they would continue to accrue value in the property and receive income through the rent.
“It’s just going to benefit everybody,” Vengroff said.
For Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, Vengroff’s proposal for workforce housing goes straight to the heart of the challenges preventing area businesses from expanding.
“The number one issue that we hear from our employers is the attraction and retention of a workforce, number one,” Hillstrom said about employees’ inability to find housing.
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But the housing problem – while big – is only one piece of the puzzle, she added.
“It’s this idea that in building a workforce housing community, you are addressing those barriers, in addition to housing, that prevent folks from going to work,” Hillstrom said.
Childcare and transportation are a part of that, and are also included in One Stop’s model.
The proposal starts in Manatee with plans to spread to Sarasota.
“We are chipping away at this complex challenge as a region,” Hillstrom said, noting how residents cross county lines for employment, housing and childcare. “It’s a model that can be replicated regionally, statewide and nationally.”
Who employer-supported housing is for
This past year Hillstrom and Vengroff met with 16 employers in Manatee County, from both the public and private sectors, and surveyed those organizations’ workforce.
With results in hand, Vengroff designed three communities to be built in stages, all with investment from employers.
The first development would include about 300 units, built on land either provided by one of the employers, gifted from the county or purchased by One Stop.
“We want to keep them small and intimate, with a lot of great amenities,” Vengroff said.
That would include on-site childcare; telehealth, community and business centers; retail space and cafes; dog parks and walking trails. Employers would coordinate transportation through vans or buses to job sites, while the EDC would work with local governments on adding public transport stops nearby.
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After the development is up and running, One Stop would stay on as the property manager.
The development will target families making between 60% and 80% of area median income, or AMI, which equates to around $52,000-$69,000 a year for a family of four, or $36,000 to $48,000 for a single person.
These are the working families falling between the cracks, Vengroff said.
While housing authorities help very low-income residents, many private builders who take public incentives and tax breaks focus on so-called affordable units for those in the 80-120% bracket.
“We’re fooling ourselves to say that is workforce housing,” Vengroff said.
‘Taking greed out of the equation’
Vengroff’s company comes with experience to back up his plan.
Starting with Harvey, his late father, the Vengroff family has specialized in affordable workforce housing for decades.
One Stop Housing currently owns and operates 3,000 affordable units in 50 properties, mostly in Manatee and Sarasota counties as well as some in Orlando and Tennessee.
In addition, it has bought and restored eight run-down hotels, resulting in another 1,000 affordable apartments, and has hundreds more units in the works.
Their model, Vengroff believes, proves this can be done.
“It’s a matter of taking greed out of the equation,” he said.
One way they save on costs is by simplifying design.
All One Stop’s units, including those for this new employer-backed plan, share the same layout. Only four variations exist – based on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms – allowing materials to be bought in bulk.
Secondly, everything is handled in-house – from contractors to administration.
The new plan will have more amenities, thanks to employer investment. One Stop’s model can still keep the project affordable, said Vengroff. Two-bedroom units could go for up to $1,550 a month, including utilities.
Vengroff anticipates that the agreements with employers will be finalized in the next several months. Working with the county to expedite permits and site plans, he hopes the first community will be ready for residents within two-and-a-half years.
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Workforce housing helps people stay and thrive
For employers and their workers, it can’t come fast enough.
“I definitely feel that this would be an amazing incentive and asset to have to be able to offer people,” Peace said of her company’s 140 employees as well as new recruits.
“If we don’t have employees, we don’t have a business,” Peace said.
Not only can it help with recruiting, it can also help encourage skilled people to stay in the area.
That’s what happened to Brenda Frampton, 56, a community-based nurse for Centerstone Sarasota.
Amid rising rents, she and two friends decided to share a three-bedroom apartment in Bradenton for $2,200 a month. Last June, their rent was set to increase by $500 a month.
Frampton found a one-bedroom for $825 a month, including utilities, at University Row Apartments, one of One Stop’s developments.
“Had there not been something available here,” she said of University Row, “I would have taken a travel nursing assignment and bounced.”
But reasonable rents do more than help workers just survive. It lets them care for their families and thrive.
Daniel Cintron, 53, another tenant at one of One Stop Housing’s communities and a Sarasota County employee, rents an affordable studio for $725 a month. That leaves plenty left over in his budget to help care for his mother, who lives next door, and cover her medical bills when needed.
What’s more, Cintron said, he can save up to buy a house, one of his biggest goals for his family.
“I wanted that for my mom.”
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 [email protected].