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Couple tackles workforce housing problem

Punta Gorda Herald , - August 30, 2006

Courtesy of Team Punta Gorda's Marilyn Thomas, I recently heard about a Punta Gorda couple's gutsy decision to take on a really big local problem -- the shortage of workforce housing.

Here's the problem in a nutshell -- houses have gotten so expensive around here that a working family making the median income can't afford to buy one.

"Not my problem," you say. "I got mine already."

Wait a minute -- who's going to repair your car, put in that new air conditioner you need, give you your annual flu shot and take care of you when you're ready for the old folks home?

Simply put, if workers can't afford to live around here, we will soon have no workers.

I won't belabor you with facts and figures, but if you read the daily Sun you know providing workforce housing may be our most critical long-term challenge as a community because economic forces are at work that make a solution beyond the means of local governments.

Let's face the facts; Charlotte County can't even afford to build sidewalks and roads, much less thousands of reasonably priced houses for the workers needed to keep our pretty little retirement community humming.

Cate and Bob Peterson of Punta Gorda Isles have come up with a different approach.

They've both had some experience with housing issues. Cate was a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Ohio before moving to Punta Gorda three years ago. In May, 2005, they became co-chairs of Team Punta Gorda's housing committee, working with the Housing Commission as well as city and county planners, private builders and others to develop affordable housing in Punta Gorda.

They ran into a stone wall.

"We did all the research and talked to more people than you can imagine," Cate said. "The builders we interviewed told the committee it couldn't be done. All the on-site builders know their costs and know they can't do it. I don't fault them."

They also didn't make much headway with other private and nonprofit interests who, for whatever reason, couldn't get anything started.

Meanwhile, their individual mental wheels were turning.

Cate told me last Tuesday -- "We were driving along in the van one day, and Bob says, 'Want to try to build a house on our own?' I said, 'I was thinking the same thing. Let's give it a try.'"

Sheer folly, you're thinking. How's one house going to make a difference?

Here's what they're thinking and why their plan might help.

"We thought, 'Lets build it ourselves and see what happens,'" Cate said. "Let's experiment to see if it can be done, to see if it can be built for a reasonable price. We've got to prove you can do it."

Still don't understand how a single house is going to help?

Think of the multiplier effects.

"We're going to take a 10 percent profit and put it in another one, one at a time, and eventually try to have a sustaining-type operation," Cate said.

But the main reason they're building the house is to tap into the unlimited reserve of do-good spirit that Punta Gorda residents are noted for.

"It's not that I want to get anything out of this," she said. "Our goal is not to get into building but to try and get other people interested in doing the same thing."

The Petersons are well on their way to finding out whether a reasonably priced, workforce home can be built in Punta Gorda.

On Aug. 15, they purchased a long rectangular lot at the corner of Cooper and East McKenzie for $38,000 that's big enough for a duplex. At a land price of just $19,000 per unit, they're off to a low-priced start.

They also quickly figured out the only way to keep costs per unit in the $175,000 range, their target price, is to go modular.

"I talked to more than one modular home builder, and they all said they could do it," Peterson said. "They have no waste, and every single part of the house is built under roof."

Working through the company's area sales representative, Steve Weeks, the Petersons went up to Palm Harbor Homes in Plant City two days after buying the lot and picked out the house. They've contracted with Roy Smith of Landau Construction to do the site preparation, build the stem wall, place the house on the lot and run utilities. Kim Weger of RE/MAX Anchor Realty will market it. All three helped the Petersons with costs.

"Can the average citizen who wants to help do anything? I don't know yet," Cate said. "We won't know until it's done and we know what it cost."

The permit package went to the city last Monday; Cate thinks it will take about three months to have the duplex ready to sell.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep in touch with the Petersons and provide you more details on the house itself as well as progress reports. My truck's A/C won't last forever, and, who knows, I might need an old folks home myself some day.

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