SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Kimberly Fogle practically skips around the job site, hurrying from a pile of bricks to an unfinished staircase. Her energy never falters. No detail escapes her notice.
A friendly “hello” to the HVAC technician turned into a questioning session about his timeline on the upstairs units. A disapproving frown was thrown when she noticed the placement of condensers behind the middle building.
“That’ll block the view from the bedrooms,” she muttered. Too late — it wasn’t worth moving them.
Fogle shows off every well-thought-out detail. The pocket door in the bathroom separating the shower from the sink, the extra pantry space in the kitchen. It’s as if she is moving into one of the 10 units under construction. She isn’t. She owns the entire complex.
It’s a project years in the making and unusual in just about every way: a newly retired woman cashing in her retirement savings to build affordable housing. Something few developers offer, but many families need.
Fogle thinks it’s the key to Central Florida’s future.
Awakening the dream
Fogle’s new passion started when she pondered the next chapter of her life after 30 years in the insurance industry. She had spent years volunteering with various groups, including the Coalition for the Homeless, and turned to them for ideas.
“I said, ‘What’s missing?’” she recalled. “They all said the same thing, housing, and I said, ‘Okay, I have no idea how to do this. I’ve never even built a doghouse. But you know, how hard can it be’?
Several years later, Fogle laughs when she tells that story. Weeks spent researching properties, fire codes, building material costs and more. Errands to pick up supplies with her average-size SUV. Meetings with town officials and neighbors. Not to mention, a pandemic threatening to shut down her site.
At last, though, the complex is close to finished. There are 10 units, each with two bedrooms and one bathroom, spread across three buildings near downtown Sanford. Her plan is to rent them for $925 apiece, approximately $700 below market value. Her intended tenants are single parents, but a few nonprofits are working with her to match people with all backgrounds. All units have been assigned.
Fogle’s conversations with nonprofit leaders rang true: Orlando, including Seminole County, has a severe housing affordability crisis. Rental websites like ApartmentGuide and Zumper list Central Florida as having the third-highest rent increases in the country in 2021, with the average 1-bedroom downtown apartment’s cost rising from around $1,200 per month to above $1,600 per month.
Pair that with the fact that developers make more money building luxury homes, which they have no problem filling thanks to the thousands of wealthy New Yorkers, Californians and other out-of-state imports who decide to seek more favorable weather and tax environments. Affordable housing funds have also been undersupplied for years due to state politicians dipping into them for pet projects. What remains is a workforce of cooks, waiters, teachers and other essential jobs who need housing within a reasonable distance from their paychecks but can’t find anywhere to live.
Local politicians have recently been calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to investigate rent hikes by utilizing price gouging laws, but officials admit they’re reliant on smaller nonprofits to fill the void.
“Publicly subsidized affordable housing is one of the most challenging types to do because there’s only so much funding available,” Orlando Planning Division Manager Elizabeth Dang said. “We really do have to rely on the market to supply it.”
Fogle’s project is the answer they were looking for.
Building the future
Fogle’s tendency toward looking before she leaps has served her well through the planning and construction process. She rejected site after site until she found what she was looking for: a parcel a stone’s throw from downtown, next to a playground and bus stop. It’s also close to a Dollar General, she noted.
“That’s key to making this work for people,” she explained. “If they live in a place where they still have to buy a car or transportation takes two hours to get where they’re where they’re going to work, that’s not sustainable.”
The lack of single-family homes around the site prevented neighbor opposition. She has saved money by double checking contractors’ claims and spent more when she thought it was necessary. She wanted her buildings to look good and to serve more than one purpose. A gathering space fills the first floor of one building, perfect for her nonprofit partners to come in and teach financial wellbeing courses or just hold meetings. She also installed coin laundry machines so her tenants wouldn’t have to venture off-property.
With tenants days away from moving in, she is almost done micromanaging this site. She plans to step away once the keys are distributed and has hired a property manager to oversee the day-to-day operations and maintenance. Her mind is shifting to the empty lot across the street.
“I’m looking, impatiently, for my next piece of property so I can do the same thing again,” she said. “I feel like if God had me learn all of this, I don’t think I should be one and done.”
What Fogle is hoping for is that this project, funded entirely by her, is a proof-of-concept. She envisions that her apartments will supply workers for downtown Sanford’s businesses while allowing them to build financial foundations, and that even the most skeptical business owners and city leaders will get behind her efforts when they see the results.
With no more retirement savings to draw from, she’ll need their help to get future projects off the ground.
“The community as a whole cannot get any better than our most vulnerable people,” she philosophized. “So, we all need to find a way to raise them because it’s impacting all of us.”
She also hopes to be a resource for others who try to solve the crisis in their own ways. Whether it’s a family looking to convert their property to a duplex or another person willing to hand over their 401(k), she wants to guide them away from the mistakes she made and bring new units to the market.
“I think it is a very complex problem, and I think everyone needs to be part of the solution,” she said.