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Seminole County leaders think they’ve found a permanent affordable housing solution

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Three-year-old in her arms, Felicia NiBlack stood beaming in front of her soon-to-be home, minutes after cutting a ceremonial ribbon with Habitat for Humanity and Seminole County leaders celebrating a construction milestone.

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“Not having to worry about hopping from apartment to apartment to apartment to apartment with rent constantly increasing, it feels really good,” she said.

NiBlack and her husband, Kolby, have a story typical of Central Florida in the past five years. They began looking to purchase a home in 2019 so they could raise a family.

When the pandemic hit, they found themselves being outbid by others immigrating from the north east and California – just as their own income was cut.

“Her sister actually told us about Habitat,” Kolby NiBlack recalled. “I said, ‘You know, let’s just give it a shot.’”

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The six homes in the newly built Sanford cul-de-sac are among the first created out of a program county leaders call a “game changer.”

The county took American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding and allocated it to its own pool that could be used to give nonprofits and developers a line of credit to build homes. Proceeds from the home sales would funnel back into the pool so more homes could be constructed.

“[A] component to that that drives success is the willingness to be innovative,” Commissioner Andria Herr said. “We think we’ve built something that can be perpetual.”

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The program is a part of a multi-pronged approach to help Seminole overcome its affordable housing crisis. Since the NiBlacks began looking, the median home sale price in the county has shot up from $250,000 to $420,000, according to Zillow data.

The county has worked with developers to create apartment buildings that have put hundreds of affordable units into the housing pipeline. Other funds have been set aside to help struggling homeowners rehab older structures.

“Every mountain is climbed one step at a time, and we’re probably at step 10,” Herr explained. “The economy drives the problem, so we are always going to be chasing the economy. The more we do to change the economic outlook, the less the problem exists.”

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Community leaders know more needs to be done. During a meeting on Tuesday, several commissioners expressed frustration at the continuing issue, as well as the state’s solution to it: the Live Local Act, which allows developers to put housing in commercial and industrial areas and circumvents many local regulations.

Herr said while they hadn’t seen any negative impacts in Seminole, they have been watching other communities fight battles. Her worry was about conformity and lack of control: in other words, the fallout from single-family neighborhoods threatened with a 10-story tower on the other side of a property line.

In the county’s one-step-at-a-time outlook, NiBlack and her new neighbors represent early progress. Six new families able to put down roots and raise the next generation of community leaders, including her son Kairo, who was fascinated by his bright red front door.

“It feels fantastic,” she said.

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