From rapid resident expansion to recent hurricane devastation, it would be difficult to say that St. Johns County isn’t in a housing crisis. Citizens from all walks of life and backgrounds are unable to find or retain affordable housing and are having to move elsewhere. But the team from the St. Johns Housing Partnership is here to answer the need. They stand alongside residents to assist with buying or renting a home, home repairs, lowering costs, and financial counseling. Their work is focused on affordable housing, wherever the need may be. Executive Director Bill Lazar and Rehab Program Manager Susan Giddens talk assistance, obstacles, and how the hurricanes have affected their work.
Social: Tell us a little bit about what the St. Johns Housing Partnership does.
Bill Lazar: The SJHP has been in business in SJC for 20 years. Our primary activity has always been a home repair service for homeowners with limited incomes who need to address health and safety measures. The majority of homes we work on belong to seniors citizens, many of whom have deferred maintenance issues after the loss of a partner and that other income. Some are also local working families who may have inherited family property and never had enough income after the basic necessities to take care of major maintenance issues.
What are the biggest obstacles to finding affordable housing in St. Johns County?
The biggest challenges in St. Johns County are caused by our booming real estate market. The old adage of “a rising tide lifts all boats” has an inverse impact on affordable housing prices. The boom has completely left our workforce out of the new home market. I’m primarily talking about first responders, teachers, medical staff who earn a decent wage (less than $80,000 annually in household income) but can’t find anything that is close to 30% of their income. The same challenge exists for renters. The two hurricane whammy really hurt our rental supply. We’ve lost some units, and because of the high demand, we’ve seen rents go up over $200 a month since Matthew. That’s a crisis waiting to happen for many of our service sector and young people just starting out. And they are a critical part of our community workforce, so we cannot afford to have them leave town for better opportunities.
Is the work of the SJHP geared mostly toward people who are looking for a home? Are there other services or assistance that you offer?
All of our work is geared towards affordable living, obviously at different levels depending on who we’re trying to assist. We’ve expanded in different directions to address unmet needs. Our counseling program began almost 15 years ago as a credit counseling effort to help local residents understand predatory lending. That expanded into homebuyer education preparation in the last building boom.
How have the recent hurricanes affected the work that you do?
We have over 400 households that have come to us for help, either with just navigating the confusing process between FEMA, insurance, and finding contractors, to those who do not have enough to repair their homes. We have a grant that provides three full-time positions just to help provide “disaster case management” for all the applications. We haven’t added programs, but many of our resources are being redirected by the funders towards storm-damaged homes.
How can people help out and volunteer with your organization? What are your greatest needs?
We’ve got volunteers helping us with our construction projects, and we have volunteers helping answer the phones in the office. We’re recruiting volunteers to help write stories about our work (to assist in fundraising efforts). We’re always looking to stretch our resources further.