BY KELLI KREBS |
Katie Kupser, 24, landed a job at Pearl Brands in Fort Myers after she graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a degree in communication. She works downtown but commutes 20 minutes “without traffic” from her apartment in South Fort Myers every morning.
She’d like to live downtown, but it wasn’t an option. She can’t afford it.
Fort Myers has a shortage of workforce housing, meaning affordable housing for the working population earning between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. Kupser, who lives with her boyfriend, falls on the lower half of the spectrum.
“It was difficult to find a place that suited our needs in an area that was where it needed to be, and that wasn’t going to break the bank,” Kupser said.
The city of Fort Myers wants millennials like Kupser, but where will they live?
To attract more millennials, the city needs jobs, but companies won’t come if there isn’t anywhere for their employees to live. There’s just not enough housing.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg. We want companies to bring their jobs, but they want housing for their employees,” said the man leading the charge on the project, Saeed Kazemi, Fort Myers’ city manager.
“If I can just get (the companies) and (developers) in the same room and say ‘OK, let’s do this,’ this will work,” he said. “The housing will bring the jobs and the jobs will bring the housing. They have to work together.”
Between 2010 and 2015, U.S. census reported a 19 percent increase in population, with 11,811 additional residents. Fort Myers also leads Florida with a 3.3 percent forecasted jump in population next year, according to the annual Florida Population Report by Cushman & Wakefield, a brokerage firm based in Orlando.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Kazemi said, mentioning the area’s growth over the past decade.
With new jobs and a buzzing downtown area, the city hopes to attract millennials to Fort Myers from out of the area as well as retaining students graduating from the local universities and colleges. There’s another issue, too—one of perception. Fort Myers has the reputation of being a place where snowbirds flock every spring, and some millennials have a hard time seeing past the traditionally older population.
Kazemi said that solving the affordable housing shortage would fix that.
“You come to Fort Myers for school, you graduate, and you stay here and enjoy the life,” Kazemi said.
But Kupser, like many millennials in Fort Myers, said she believes the housing in the downtown area caters to the seasonal visitors.
“I feel like all the condos and historical houses down there are geared more toward the snowbirds,” Kupser said.
But Kupser, who has lived in Fort Myers since 2003, does see the potential.
“I think in the past year or so, it’s has definitely started taking a turn toward attempting to attract more than just snowbirds,” Kupser said. “I’ve seen a ton of efforts to bring millennials downtown for different events or restaurants or boutiques that are opening up.”
The city has embraced new attractions for millennials, such as the appropriately named Millennial Brewing Company which hosts regular food truck rallies, unique restaurants like 3 Pepper Burrito Co., as well as regular events downtown.
“They’re really trying to hone in on things that are important to millennials and I think they’ve done a great job trying to bring them in,” Kupser said, “but they haven’t nailed down how to get the millennials living in downtown yet.”
The city plans on doubling the size of the downtown area, extending another 40 blocks south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for housing as well as office space for class A companies (50 to 200 employees) and class B companies (20 to 50 employees).
The goal is to attract tech companies to the downtown area and create something similar to the booming technology hub in Austin, Texas.
“I believe technology is the way to go with millennials,” Kazemi said. “I want create a hub in Fort Myers. That’s the only thing that’s missing in this area, we need a technology hub.”
Another goal is to make the area as walkable as possible, as trends show that millennials prefer walking to driving.
More than half of millennials surveyed would consider moving to another city if it had more or better options for getting around, according to a survey conducted by The Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America in 2014. Eighty-six percent said it was important for their city to offer opportunities to live and work without relying on a car.
“It’s really nice to just be able to walk to everything and not have to worry about getting a cab or anything like that,” Kupser said. “Everything is right there. Like all our clients are right there so I can just walk a few blocks and see them. Same for lunch breaks. There’s a lot of options and they’re all right there.”
Kazemi is paying attention to what cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina, have done to solve their workforce housing shortages.
In September, the Nashville City Council approved a three-year pilot program that will let residential developers who agree to build affordably priced units to compete for $2 million worth of incentives and grants. The council also approved inclusionary zoning housing legislation that will require residential apartment developers to include a percentage of new workforce units in their projects beginning in June, according to city documents.
Both grants’ proposals claim to offset developers’ costs to make housing cheaper than market value. The initiatives are projected to create 200 units a year.
Since February, the Charleston City Committee on Community Development has been meeting to discuss ways to generate funding for housing and to debate an ordinance to increase workforce housing requirements, according to committee meeting minutes.
“There’s a tremendous need for affordable and workforce housing in our community,” said Geona Johnson, Charleston’s Director of Housing and Community Development.
In addition to upping the city’s number of units, Charleston is also looking at new ways to bring in the funds.
Kazemi acknowledged that making Fort Myers millennial-friendly is a mammoth job, but he said he is confident that Fort Myers is the right place in southwest Florida to see a boom in the younger population.
“I have a downtown, I have the history, I have the beach,” he said. “No one else has what Fort Myers has.”
(FEATURED PHOTO: Kelli Krebs | The Place on First undergoes construction on March 20, 2017. The Place will be a multi-use building of retail and restaurants, offices and upper story condos topped by a sky deck.)