Guest opinion: Note to writer: Look closer at Lee county's commitment to affordable housing

·3 min read

In his op-ed on April 24, an executive with SWFL, Inc. (the renamed Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce) blames “a small but vocal group of community members“ who “shout down” any proposed new development. If only. Development in Lee County has been moving forward with unbridled speed; encouraged by our County Commissioners, developers choose to build new, high-end gated communities, totally unaffordable to those earning lower incomes. And who can blame them? With discounted impact fees and cheap land in formerly protected areas, they can charge premium prices. Now the writer is blaming the victims of this rampant building: Lee residents upset with the prospect of even more traffic and concerned about our overcrowded schools and the bulldozing of precious mangroves.

Construction workers prepare the foundation for a new house in the Verdana Village neighborhood on Corkscrew Road on Thursday, Aug. 12. 2021. Southwest Florida saw another decade of rapid growth according to the latest 2020 Census data.
Construction workers prepare the foundation for a new house in the Verdana Village neighborhood on Corkscrew Road on Thursday, Aug. 12. 2021. Southwest Florida saw another decade of rapid growth according to the latest 2020 Census data.

Or perhaps he is referring to Women For a Better Lee? We are proud of our loud voice in this community and welcome any and all recruits upset about what is happening (www.womenforabetterlee.com). Let’s be clear, WFBL is for responsible development that has low impact on ecosystems, water quality and endangered animals; energy-efficient housing priced to attract individuals and families at all income levels; and development that pays for the roads, schools and parks needed by new residents, rather than having these costs foisted on taxpayers as the result of the current low impact fees assessed developers.

Charlotte Newton
Charlotte Newton

As to the availability of affordable housing, for years our state has raided the affordable housing trust fund to pay for other projects and our county has expended few funds to help the situation.

Instead of blaming loud residents, the writer should look at these two examples of the County’s ‘commitment’ to affordable housing:

Recently, County Commissioners accepted $1.26 million from the owner of an Estero apartment complex who had been required to offer 63 affordable housing units as part of being allowed to build. The reason this owner paid the money? He sold the property without the affordable housing units (for $90 million) and had to compensate the County for the loss of these apartments. Where did the money go? It went into an affordable housing fund to be used (eventually) to finance the building (maybe) of an affordable housing complex in Cape Coral where a spade of dirt hasn’t even been turned. And what of the 63 renters now in the Estero affordable housing apartments? Who knows.

More: Estero development will help pay to launch Cape Coral affordable housing complex

Of course, if there is so much concern, why hasn’t the County’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee convened in six months? The commissioner member of that committee, Ray Sandelli, met with a Who’s Who of large developers (including the SWFL, Inc. author) last October on “workforce housing” yet what has resulted? An op-ed blaming us citizen-victims when it’s the business community and short-sighted County Commissioners who have caused this in the first place.

There must be a better way. One idea: rather than having a process that discourages citizen input in the zoning and land use process, the County and business community should be holding accessible public hearings and town halls where there is two-way dialogue instead of informational PR sessions that announce to residents what is coming to their neighborhoods. Or better yet, what about increasing impact fees so that we are assured that public amenities are adequate to serve all the new people coming in?

As rents in Lee County continue to climb, the business community is finally waking up to what it has wrought— an economy that cannot house the very workforce on which it is built. This is certainly a case of leaving the door open and complaining that the dog has run away.

Fort Myers resident Charlotte Newton wrote this guest opinion column on behalf of Women for a better Lee.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: affordable housing in lee county needs more scrutiny with decision makers