Apartment-size homes are being billed as a fresh idea for affordable-housing demands.
Aesthetically appealing, affordable, high-quality entry-level homes are in demand in Lake County, according to a local housing expert who claims the American Dream is out of reach for four out of 10 families in the county.
“My purpose here is I intend to open a window,” says Kent Adcock, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Lake-Sumter, as he metaphorically paraphrased the words of Pope John Paul XXIII while recently proposing a housing concept to the Lake County Board of County Commissioners.
“Just open a window and let some new thoughts blow in, some new ideas come into our thinking,” Kent says. “We should be challenged to bring in that innovation to consider alternative models for affordable housing.”
He has discovered many millennials are increasingly eliminated from housing opportunities due to entry-level incomes.
“I am not proposing a tiny home community, which is a phenomenon that has recently developed where people live in RV-like mobile units of 125 to 250 square feet. I personally believe that there is merit in that model, but what we are talking about is real high-quality, energy-efficient, small footprint, fee-simple, apartment-sized homes (where homeowner owns house and land) built in a walkable community that is either on a slab or stem wall,” Kent says. “The key term is apartment size—400 to 700 square feet, one bedroom or two bedrooms. In the past, historically, households began meagerly with a starter home, not a 1,600-square-foot, $160,000-plus home, but an apartment-sized home.”
The concept of cottage homes would offer a smaller price point for entry-level homeowners or those looking to downsize. Kent showed the county commissioners photos of some of these smaller houses built in the North Carolina mountains that were in the $70,000 to $80,000 price range.
“There is a movement toward minimalism, especially millennials, and even people my age,” says Kent, who recently downsized to a smaller home with his wife. “We cut our house in half. It’s less maintenance, less to keep up, less cost, and I think a lot of people are beginning to recognize McMansions are not necessarily everything they are cracked up to be.”
Affordability is crucial
In doing research, Kent told the commissioners that 37 percent of all Lake County households earn less than $35,000 a year, and 50 percent of Lake County households earn less than $50,000 annually.
“What housing payment can a household earning $35,000 a year afford? That’s kind of critical to the dynamics of a growing suburb that Lake County really has become. HUD uses the principle that you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your household income on housing, which means $875 a month would be the maximum for a family earning $35,000 a year,” Kent says, referring to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
However, the average rent in Lake County is much higher, he says. In Eustis alone, it’s $1,121 a month, which makes it “extremely taxing and well over their ability to afford,” Kent says of a family earning $35,000.
Also taxing is that it’s difficult to find a new home in Lake County for less than $160,000 a year, he adds. That price point would require about 6 percent in closing costs ($9,600) and a Federal Housing Administration down payment of 3.5 percent ($5,600), which would amount to about $15,000 cash to buy an entry-level, brand-new house in the county.
“Their payment would be $930 a month, which is over the HUD standard, so it’s really not affordable for someone earning $35,000 a year,” Kent says. He also notes the county has substandard housing that often requires costly repairs that could be burdensome for residents.
“We looked at four vulnerable population groups that are in Lake County,” Kent says.
Coming in No. 1 was 65-plus age seniors, representing 26.4 percent of the population; disabled residents are at 9.5 percent; millennials, ages 18-24, make up 23.8 percent and are growing dramatically, he adds; while military veterans account for 12.4 percent, which is 1.5 times higher than the national average.
Kent believes affordable housing can be achieved in the similar fashion Habitat has done in building Veterans Village in Umatilla, a pocket neighborhood of several new homes either under construction, completed, or ready for occupancy early this year. The apartment-size cottages would be half the size of the homes in Veterans Village, he says.
“There is going to be a need for this type of housing,” says Todd Drennan, vice president of Forefront Architecture, noting the growth of Orlando extending into Lake County has become more prevalent.
Possible pilot idea
“So our thinking here is to create a pilot that gives an opportunity to test a new product to see how valid the theory is related to this type of housing transition,” Kent says. “This is a concept; we’re opening a window to let some new possibilities in.”
Kent suggests the housing pilot could be established in one of the older existing mobile home parks. Some of the parks are 40 to 50 years old and are substandard in terms of housing, and he believes they could be transitioned into a community of cottage homes.
He envisions the pilot plan working because many mobile home communities have met requirements from a zoning and services perspective, including not having to adhere to minimum square-foot standards for houses and lots; being exempt from having to have a carport or garage; being exempt from impact fees because services already exist for water, sewer, and electric; and having higher density approvals.
“I believe many lower-end mobile home parks could be refreshed with a new conversion while creating property tax for the county,” Kent says.
His overall wish is for county officials and staff members to talk internally and externally with other stakeholders about the idea, just as they would with a planned unit development.
“There are lot of possibilities here and I think it is a wonderful idea,” says County Commissioner Leslie Campione, who was not alone in voicing support.
If the concept goes forward and Habitat directors approve, Kent notes Habitat could help in development and maintenance of the smaller homes.
“We will seek to provide subsidy for closing costs and principal reduction,” he says, along with assisting families with education and mortgages with affordable terms, such as no money down.
In terms of affordability, he says attempts would be made to achieve a house payment that is 50 percent of the current rent and ownership costs…“Basically, no more than rent costs on a mobile home lot,” he says, adding many parks charge $400 to $450 a month in lot rent on 40-and 50-year-old mobile homes that have deteriorated.
Kent was pleased with county commissioners’ feedback.
“There was no indication that we should shy away from at least continuing to the next level of dialogue, so I am excited about it,” Kent says. “I think there will be a market if this is developed with quality, and I think we have demonstrated with Veterans Village the quality.”