Palm Beach County feels an affordable housing crunch — even as many new homes rise

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Oct 26, 2021 8:06 PM

A struggle to find affordable housing has only grown over the past decade in the northwest part of Palm Beach County, even as developers built thousands of new homes there.

County commissioners on Tuesday discussed the future of development on the 21,000-acre farming region west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, which has seen undeveloped parcels give way to development. More affordable housing is needed in the county’s Agricultural Reserve, county commissioners agree. But when that happens is still up in the air.

While gated communities have continued to pop up, affordable housing for workers who help sustain the community, such as employees at restaurants and gyms, as well as farm workers who help sustain the $1.4 billion farming industry, has fallen behind.

“Finding a place to live is becoming more and more of a struggle,” Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said. “I’ve got countless stories of friends who are renting and are priced out of their homes.”

Over the past two decades, the Agricultural Reserve has been a subject of fierce debate over land preservation between environmentalists and developers. Persuaded by the threat of overdevelopment, voters supported spending $100 million to buy about 2,400 acres in 1999, land that was leased to agricultural users in Palm Beach County.

After the voter referendum, county planners placed limits on development. The county can require developers to save the majority of properties for conservation, agricultural uses or water storage in what’s become known as the “60/40 rule.” It requires that 60% of land is preserved, while 40% can be used for development.

However, the rules have gradually eroded over time with more and more homes chipping away at farmland in the western part of the county.

On Tuesday, commissioners also discussed allowing more commercial development in the area, to help supplement the surrounding communities, but also require more workers — and more affordable housing.

A construction worker walks through lumber at Valencia Sound in Boynton Beach on Monday, May 24, 2021.

A construction worker walks through lumber at Valencia Sound in Boynton Beach on Monday, May 24, 2021. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Commissioner Maria Marino agreed they need to add more housing, but worried about the potential snowball effect it could have.

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“We’ve been inundated with requests for workforce housing, so we need to come up with a number,” Marino said. “What is the number of units we want to put [with what land is left]?

“And if we do this, what effect does this have on the properties that have come before them. Do we open Pandora’s box, and if so how?”

Commissioners did not come to an agreement on Tuesday, deciding to keep discussing those issues. McKinlay voiced her frustration with the county’s slow process, saying she’s “tired of kicking the can down the road.”

“We know that there are competing interests in this area. We’re trying to protect agriculture and we’re trying to maintain it. We’re trying to add enhancements for environmental protection. We’re trying to apply and allow for mixed-type of housing so our families can afford to have places to live and we’re trying to be as accommodating to some of the different business interests.

“Stop kicking the can down the road. Let’s bite the bullet and make a decision.”

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