“Our wages in this area are low. Our workforce people ... our servers, people who work in construction, need housing they can afford.
FORT WALTON BEACH — When Jim Cordes settled into his apartment at Hurlburt Arms on Forsman Circle two years ago, he thought he had found his home.
"I was living in another apartment before this, but it wasn't as nice," he said.
Cordes has been with an Independent Living Program through Bridgeway Center for six years. Before that he jumped from couch to couch and job to job, and even faced homelessness while he battled mental illness.
Two months ago he and dozens of other tenants were dismayed when they got a notice on their door. The apartment complex had been sold and had a new name: Newport Square Apartments.
While their existing leases were intact, their futures were up in the air.
But the issue of affordable housing doesn't end with one apartment complex. It's a "major crisis" in Okaloosa County, said Sarah Yelverton, executive director of the Homelessness and Housing Alliance.
Luxury vs. affordable
Hurlburt Arms was one of few local options for affordable housing. Many residents there are only able to pay rent through HUD and Section 8. Some are veterans using HUD VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) and some, like Cordes, are part of Bridgeway’s Independent Living Program.
Majenta Gallagher, regional manager for Newport Square, said the apartment complex does not participate in any housing programs. No leases will be automatically renewed; any tenants who want to stay will have to meet new qualifications.
“We’ve spoken to the housing authorities and the VA to give ample notice that we’re not participating in programs as a courtesy,” Gallagher told the Daily News in April.
Plans for the new complex include landscape upgrades and complete apartment renovations. Gallagher said they are trying to provide more luxury rentals for individuals and families.
But according to the Fort Walton Beach Housing Authority, the area’s most critical need is affordable housing, not luxury.
“The inventory of affordable housing units to serve the low and extremely low-income individuals in Okaloosa County is critically short, and the projections are for this problem to get worse,” said Alonzo Smith, deputy director of Fort Walton Beach Housing Authority. “Whenever we lose a landlord, it just exacerbates this problem and makes it more difficult for us to house this population.”
In the case of Newport Square, 25 clients of the Housing Authority will have to be relocated eventually since they will not meet new lease requirements, Smith said.
The Fort Walton Beach Housing Authority has 758 families housed by the allotted vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are still 84 with vouchers who have not yet found a place to live, Smith said.
“Available units are constantly fluctuating as new landlords come on to the program and old ones drop off,” he said.
Smith said there can be negative perceptions of housing assistance programs, especially those through HUD. It may be that some landlords are put off by the paperwork and inspection processes required to protect clients and landlords. Smith also acknowledges that landlords can get higher rents from non-Housing Choice Voucher Program recipients.
“There is often an education factor; (landlords) just don’t understand how the program works,” he said.
Yelverton said she runs into the same issue when it comes to finding HUD housing. What some don’t know is that there are protections in place, such as the landlord mitigation funds, that covers any damages to property, she said.
“(Through HUD) that rent is guaranteed,” Yelverton said. “Landlords really can’t lose.”
Meeting the need
On April 10 some Newport Square tenants addressed the Fort Walton Beach City Council about the apartment complex.
Mayor Dick Rynearson expressed sympathy, but said there was nothing the city could do.
Affordable housing — not just HUD housing — is hard to come by in Okaloosa and surrounding areas, Yelverton said. When a housing complex opts out of accepting housing programs it can be “devastating” to a community, she said.
“Luxury places are not what we need,” Yelverton said. “We have people with low income and extremely low incomes who have tremendous difficulty finding places to live. ... We need more housing for the elderly."
According to U.S. Census data from 2017, the average per capita income in Okaloosa County is $29,603 — and the county's median gross rent of $1,035 per month is 42 percent of the average income. Yelverton said rent should reflect the average pay.
“Our wages in this area are low,” she said. “Our workforce people ... our servers, people who work in construction, need housing they can afford. And some of that housing that is affordable has not been taken care of.”
Looking for housing is stressful, and it’s even more so when options keep dwindling. For some families, it can be “completely traumatizing.”
“It’s so expensive to move into a new place,” she said. “You’re not going to find a lot of people who can pay the first month rent and a deposit. It’s expensive to take the time off work, switch utilities and rent a truck.”
The Homeless and Housing Alliance typically is stretched thin, Yelverton said. That’s why the nonprofit is working to find funds to hire a housing navigator — someone to make the calls, search for affordable housing and help clients through the process.
With his lease ending in October, Ray Barnes is another tenant in limbo. Like Cordes, he’s part of the Bridgeway Independent Living Program. He’s on disability for a heart condition. His apartment at Newport Square is “as good as it’s going to get,” he said.
However, he's already started packing things up in preparation for the inevitable.
“I like it here. I can cut through the back roads to get to the mall. It’s close to restaurants and Piggy Wiggly,” he said last month outside his second-story apartment. “I don’t have a car. ... The location you can’t beat.”
At 60, Barnes said he’s “too old” to keep jumping from place to place. The stress of wondering where his next home will be is a “damn roller coaster,” he said.
“I grew up here,” he said. “This area is becoming very unforgivable for people on government programs.
"It’s gentrification. That’s what it is.”