Collier County District 4 Commissioner Penny Taylor held an informational town hall meeting to discuss the contentious issue of the development of affordable housing in East Naples. Hundreds gathered at the South Regional Library to hear from the commissioner and to voice their own concerns regarding the topic.
The evening began with a presentation by Taylor in which she clarified statistical information regarding affordable housing in East Naples and Collier County. Namely, she disputed a report authored by resident Gary Lubben. She also addressed public fears of redlining, or the concentrating of affordable housing to one section of the county. State law prohibits this practice.
District 1 Commissioner Donna Fiala, who was in attendance that evening, took exception to the discussion of redlining, going so far as to interrupt Taylor’s presentation. From the audience Fiala said, “It says in the state statues, affordable housing should be distributed throughout the county. State statutes say, avoid concentration of affordable housing in one area. Is that true? Yes it is.”
Fiala has repeatedly expressed her feelings that East Naples has sufficient affordable housing and other districts of the county should be considered for its development.
Commissioner Taylor, however, refused to respond to Fiala’s outburst stating the Sunshine Law, in which two elected officials may not discuss policy unless minutes are being taken and the meeting is officially recognized.
“I do not want to break the county law or the Sunshine Law tonight,” Taylor said. “She is [Donna Fiala] not to answer or directly address me. It is against the law.”
After her presentation, Taylor opened the floor to a deluge of questions from East Naples residents. First to speak was Donald Brainard of Fiddlers Creek. He asked the commissioner for clarification on how affordable housing is defined by Collier County.
“What’s the definition of affordable housing? Does it include low income? Does it include Section 8? Does it include rent assistance, utility assistance, etc.?”
The crux of the affordable housing debate in Collier County seems to lie with this general lack of understanding of what exactly constitutes affordable housing and how it should be allocated throughout the area.
In February 2017, the Board of County Commissioners adopted a new definition of affordable housing for Collier County. It mirrors the definition in the state statute. It is housing that does not cost a person or household more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income.
“Within affordable housing, there are certain income levels that the county has decided that it would be important to assist,” Cormac Giblin said in response Brainard’s question. Giblin is the Manager of Housing and Grant Development for Collier County. “Those income levels are defined as extremely low income, very low income, low income, moderate income, and gap income. Those run from the 0 percent of the median income to up to 140 percent of median income.”
The county wishes to create affordable housing at a variety of income levels. As it currently stands, 54 percent of residential units in East Naples are valued at less than $250,000 or within the range of a subjective affordability. However, according to Taylor, of the 105,000 homes appraised as costing less than $250,000, less than 1,323 units are currently for sale.
Another audience member, Julisa Rodriguez, spoke to Taylor about her personal difficulty in finding affordable housing in East Naples. Rodriguez is a first grade teacher at Vineyards Elementary School. She is also a single mother.
“I went to school, I have a bachelor’s degree, and I can’t even afford to stay here with my daughter and my own support system,” she said. “This is my home and I can’t even get a house. I don’t want something fancy. But what do I do? Who do I go to? Where do I go?”
As part of the teaching community she went to say, “Everybody that works together, we all are a team we all work together to make this a community. But you’re telling us we’re not good enough to live here.”
The atmosphere of the room was tense. Many it, seemed, were against the development of affordable housing being built in their neighborhoods and wished to express that to the commissioner.
East Naples Civic Association Board Member Christopher Shucart said, “My biggest issue is, if you drive around East Naples, you look at the extreme concentration of lower and low income housing in the East Naples areas. We have addressed this in our last East Naples Civic Association meeting and I think that, to me, is one of the issues that needs to be addressed. We need to have equal distribution of housing within the county.”
Commissioner Taylor noted this is just the beginning of the affordable housing conversation. More public forums are sure to follow.
“Government is a very open book, but it’s clumsy,” she said.