More than 400 people attended the Collier County Workforce Housing Forum hosted by Greater Naples Leadership on Wednesday. The event featured eight employers in the Southwest Florida area who are struggling to find housing for their employees, along with testimony from six local residents who face a daily lack of affordable housing.
Dan Lavender, CEO of Moorings Park Retirement Community, is one of many business leaders in the area struggling with employees forced to commute long distances each day. “Housewives came to me, they got a letter, their rents increased from 700 to 800 dollars a month. They can’t afford it, sometimes they move 45, 50 miles away,” he said. “Now they travel back and forth and spend two hours one way. And I just don’t think that’s sustainable. We need to find a way for the people who provide services and work to be close together as a community.”
NCH Healthcare System CEO Paul Hiltz said the company spent about $40 million more on salaries last year than it will in 2021 in an effort to offset cost-of-living increases. NCH continues to struggle with hundreds of open positions and 40% of its staff live outside of Collier County. After realizing that throwing money at the workforce housing issue was not the answer, NCH tried to find more creative ways to find a solution, one of which was to create a housing coordinator position.
“The position we’ve created helps employees facing evictions, unsustainable rent increases and finding housing that’s within their budget,” Hiltz said. “For that position, it took time to establish relationships with community members and local housing complexes that would work with us, as well as identify other housing assistance programs that can help, and we are continuing that search.”
Darlyn Estes, Director of Management Services for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, spoke about how the lack of workforce housing is affecting recruitment along with the lengthening of days for current members. “Many of our members who are close to retirement age are realizing that they can make a lot of money by selling their homes because of the housing market, and they’re taking advantage of that,” she said. “So I’m losing members who sell their homes for a big profit and go to another community where they can buy a more affordable home.”
In an effort to combat this problem, the sheriff’s office instituted hiring bonuses and began allowing officers with assigned cars to drive them home in Lee and Hendry counties. Due to a staff shortage of 50 positions, members work 12-hour shifts.
“Those who live outside the district have a very long commute, an hour to an hour and a half,” Estes said. “So add that to the beginning and end of each shift, and it’s a very long day. They work three consecutive 12-hour shifts plus travel time before getting one day off.”
Collier County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Valerie Wenrich provided insight into how unaffordable housing affects the school system. The district has the second highest starting salary in the state at $50,000 and has given all employees a 25% raise over the past four years.
“We see employees turning down our raises because they need a cut for benefits, which means they’re going to lose subsidized child care or subsidized housing or subsidized food,” Wenrich said. Wenrich feels pressure to make sure the district’s understaffing doesn’t begin to affect students in the district. “Increasing class sizes due to lack of teaching staff, combining courses to ensure there are certified teachers is something we had to use as a solution,” she said.
Mario Delaluz and his wife, Abigail Moreno, were one of six Southwest Florida residents to testify during the forum. They live with their newborn daughter in a makeshift room inside their in-laws’ garage. “Everything I do with the baby, I’m going to have to take her from this room in this garage to my house to do everything,” Moreno said. “So I would have to come back and forth to help with my baby’s needs, and it’s a difficult situation. It also feels a bit unsafe to be out of the house at night as well.”
Delaluz hopes that of all the shared experiences brought to the audience, the biggest takeaway message is how the workforce housing crisis is shaping the region’s future.
“It’s wonderful that we live in Naples, and there are also million dollar houses. But at the end of the day, what can [the service industry] afford? What can I afford my grandchildren in the future? That’s what’s having a big impact right now,” he said. “And to hear the stories and continue to hear ‘These are my children, these are my grandchildren, this is the legacy that is coming.’ So it’s not just affecting them, it’s affecting the future generation as well.”