Habitat helping to mitigate housing crisis


The housing crisis in St. Johns County continues unabated as the median price for a home hovers around $520,000.

And with demand high amid an influx of new residents, rents too have skyrocketed. According to one rental platform, the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in St. Augustine was $1,572 as of January.

It’s a crisis not only for those at the low end of the earnings scale and essential workers in the “missing middle,” but — in a veiled way — for everyone.

Workers who cannot afford to live here will choose to work in the counties they can afford, leaving St. Johns County at risk of losing out on qualified teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, nurses. Add to that the people who work in restaurants, collect residential trash, clean people’s teeth, work at daycare and assisted-living facilities … the list goes on. Loss of workers means hardship for business owners and loss of services for all.

Meanwhile, those willing to make long commutes to work here add to the county’s traffic woes.

One organization working to counter this trend is Habitat for Humanity of St. Augustine/St. Johns County. And, due to some recent policy changes, this too-often overlooked community partner is on the threshold of making an impact greater than ever before in its 30-year history.

Good news

The local Habitat affiliate has launched its fourth neighborhood, Volusia Woods, which will consist of 36 homes when complete. Located near the roundabout at Aiken Street and Four Mile Road west of St. Augustine, it is near Habitat’s just-completed Canopy Oaks neighborhood.

Three houses are under construction now and three more are in the works.

It will be a community where future homeowners will be able to afford to live. But retention of essential workers is only one benefit. These residents will also add to the tax base through ad valorum taxes and daily economic activity.

That’s good news, but it’s only the beginning.

The local Habitat is expanding its policy to include a greater portion of the workforce, those essential workers who historically might not have qualified and yet cannot afford to buy a home at today’s market prices. These might be teachers or police officers or someone else in that earning range.

But that’s not all.

In the past, the affiliate acted as the mortgage originator. The only revenue it realized from the sale of a home was the monthly mortgage payments sent in by the residents. As a result, it took a very long time to accumulate the funds to begin a new home. Six houses a year was about all it could do.

Now, following the lead of other affiliates in Florida, the local Habitat board adopted a process by which the USDA is the mortgage holder. That means the homeowner makes payments to USDA, and Habitat, at the time of closing, receives the entire amount for which the house has been appraised.

This frees up money quickly, and Habitat can build one or two more homes right away.

“That has been a big game changer for us,” said Malinda Everson, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of St. Augustine/St. Johns County.

In the 30 years since the local affiliate began as a grassroots effort by volunteers from local churches, Habitat has built 165 homes here.

But with this new configuration, it’s planning to start building 30 homes a year by 2028.

Still, to carry out these plans, Habitat will need help from the community.

A matter of need

Probably the number one thing Habitat needs in order to build 30 homes a year is land.

“My dream is that we have someone donate or really give us a good price on 100 acres of land that we can build on for years to come,” said Tom Torretta, development director for the local Habitat affiliate. “We could work with Ability Housing, and we could work with St. Johns Housing Partnership … it would be a whole community that people could afford to live in.”

Beyond that, the organization always needs financial support. There are costs beyond the construction of the home.

“A lot of people don’t know that when you build a workforce housing development, the infrastructure is not provided by the county or any other governmental entity,” said Everson. “We have to pay for it. So, our Volusia Woods neighborhood, the property costs us right around $300,000; the infrastructure’s over $2 million. That is what stalls us from building a lot of affordable housing.”

And writing a check is not the only way someone can support the organization’s efforts.

The affiliate can be named in one’s will or be made a beneficiary on a life insurance policy. There are multiple ways to give, which a tax accountant or financial adviser can describe.

There’s also a program called cars4homes. Cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, RVs — any sort of vehicle can be donated.

“It’s so easy,” said Everson. “You just click a button. You put in the VIN number. They come get it, and we get the check.”

For further information, go to habitatstjohns.org or call Torretta at 904-826-3252 ext. 2001.

One thing donors should be aware of is that donations to Habitat for Humanity International do not come back to the local affiliate.

Of course, as always, Habitat needs volunteers to help do much of the finish work on the homes and help with much of the behind-the-scenes office work.

Click HERE to read how getting a Habitat home helped change a local woman's life.