It is difficult to develop a strong workforce without housing to support those who are employed at local businesses. Currently, Milford, like many cities in the United States, is dealing with an affordable housing crisis which is making it difficult for some employers to fill positions. The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford will focus this year on methods to create more affordable housing and dedicated their annual Workforce Development Luncheon to the issue.
“As of 2021, the median cost to purchase a house in Milford is $309,155 and the average rent, as of 2022, is $1,434, the equivalent of $23 an hour,” Angel Hodges, President of CCGM, said. “Currently in Delaware, there has been a large increase in homelessness from 950 people in 2015 to over 2,300 in early 2022. The fastest growing population in Delaware between 2010 and 2021 was 65 plus with an increase of 55 percent. With that growing population, we’re seeing a huge increase in homelessness for ages 62 plus with an increase of 40 percent since 2015. Sussex County has a 34 percent homeless population.”
David Moore, President and CEO of Milford Housing Development Corporation, explained that housing values are still high which is leading to the lack of affordable housing. Ashely Norman, Homeless Liaison for Milford School District, felt that many families in Milford simply did not have the income needed for housing in the area while Jasmine Henry, a loan officer with USDA felt that interest rates were another factor that made it difficult for people in the area to find housing.
“Because we are such a great group of people, we attract the masses,” Joanne Milton, a Milford real estate agent, said. “Delaware is the destination state from all of those surrounding states. Our taxes are less, there’s no sales tax. Your property tax here for one year is equal to what they pay in one month in New Jersey, New York, some places in Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, so we are attractive. I don’t see that stopping. They’re bringing flush cash to this area, allowing that home to sell much higher for a much longer period of time here than it was in the past. Well, the good news is we are at the top because the interest rates are high as well as the price. The rates are starting to gradually adjust. The prices will also start to gradually adjust. And it’s been a seller’s market. Now there’s negotiation happening the sellers are giving a little bit, offering a little bit of closing cost assistance. They’re actually buying people’s rates down to sell their home. Because life situations still happen no matter what.”
Janet Brittingham, Single Family Housing Program Director for Rural Development with the USDA, explained that there was a significant amount of rental assistance available from the federal government. She suggested that anyone who is struggling to find affordable housing look toward low-income rentals which usually have rents based on income. Brittingham stated that low-income apartments may have rents as low as between nothing and $25 per month. Moore felt that anyone looking toward home ownership, however, should consider financial counseling.
“I think the first thing they need to do is not go to a realtor right away No offense, but I think they need that education on what it is to be a renter versus homeownership,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of education necessary to transition from rent to home ownership. And rental assistance is a great tool. And no one should pay, whether it’s us in this room or someone that’s a service worker trying to find a home, more than 30% of your income for utilities or mortgage. But, in my experience, many people don’t know how to get that right balance in their financial lives to make ends meet in a rental or a home they own.”
Norman agreed, stating that unless someone knew how to manage their finances, home ownership success would be no different than rental success. She explained that when families come to her because they cannot find affordable housing, she recommends they find someone else who is looking for housing and double up. This allows them to reduce costs and may give them the ability to save money toward a home.
“So there’s websites, there’s phone numbers, there are a ton of resources out there. They just haven’t heard that they are there. Some of the funding is grant monies for a portion of the year so that it eventually runs out. So that can’t be the case,” Milton said. “I just discovered this program. I believe they just launched it. It’s called Self Financing. People who have paid rent all along, it’s never counted for anything towards improving their credit score. Well, now they offer a program to do exactly that. So anyone you know that’s renting, let them know, because it’s a far better way to improve your credit score than taking out more credit. So now it actually matters that they demonstrate responsibility, and it can get them to the next level.”
The program that allows Delawareans to improve their credit score with rent payments is a new pilot program entitled the Delaware Tenant Rent-Reporting Program Pilot, funded by American Rescue Plan Act funds and partnered with Self Financial. In order to participate in the program, renters must have a housing voucher from or live in a public housing unit operated by one of the state’s five PHAs or have a household income at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Tenants will have access to their credit scores on a monthly basis during the pilot program as well as theft insurance, financial counseling and the option to have 24 months of rent along with utility payments reported to credit bureaus. More information can be found by calling 302-855-1370 or 302-260-1212. They may also email [email protected] or visit www.neighborgoodpartners.org.
“The increased costs and soft costs and incentives for developers to do things in the downtown district. They need to be polished and looked at a little bit better. Because there’s nothing an affordable housing developer does different than the others and maybe there are ways to incentivize a non-profit developer,” Moore said, when asked how higher cost housing could be addressed. “If the building permit fees are the same and the impacts are the same, we’re just going to pass it on to our customers. So, looking at some ways to reduce those costs at either state or federal level to provide some more incentive for those primarily serving people maybe below 50% immediately.”
Brittingham pointed to the pallet home project created in Georgetown by First State Community Action, explaining that she was very impressed with how the project was set up. Other suggestions were dedicated housing for larger corporations, such as Perdue.
“I want to just add a comment. And again, I don’t remember where I read it, but I read one time that all of us are about three months from being homeless,” Hodges said. “But what it meant was that any tragedy or any financial, unexpected financial thing, we could be homeless within about three months because most of us don’t have what we need to be prepared for something like that. So, I think sometimes we don’t realize that because somebody that’s homeless could have been in a house last year, could have been just like us, and we don’t know what happened.”
Mayor Archie Campbell agreed and stated that, in meetings recently, he has learned there were three types of homelessness.
“Those that like being homeless and don’t want to get the job and like to stay out there. And you have those that are working who want to get out of it. But because of the income and what they’re making, they cannot afford it,” Mayor Campbell said. “And then you have the mental and the mental is a major problem. Actually, we added the behavioral unit in the police department and because it’s not a simple ABC. And as I understand with the homeless, and I agree with you, we can all be there like that. I’ve attended five or six homeless meetings and the homeless are actually telling us how they became homeless, and it will break your heart, but there’s nothing you can really do. If we look at the rents and we talk at $1,300 to $1,500 a month some of us here can’t afford that.”
One question asked was whether there could be something done to incentivize employers to pay higher salaries in order to meet the higher cost of housing. Jennifer Jurczak of the Department of Labor stated that she dealt with that question all the time.
“We have retailers like WalMart, for instance, not to throw them under the bus, but they have hiring signs everywhere. But then you hear the job seeker say, “Well, they’re not calling me back.” We talk to HR and find out they’re not really hiring. They’re just establishing a database full of applicants,” Jurczak said. “And that’s happening everywhere. I mean, there are businesses, obviously. That are really hiring but they can’t afford to pay what people want. I mean, they pretty much have their top people where they can pay really good versus a new hire they can’t pay more, because of the other costs have doubled, tripled, quadrupled, they cannot afford it.”
Jurczak continued that the Department of Labor had programs that would pay employers 50 percent of someone’s wages while they were learning a new job as well as other programs designed for small businesses where they are able to incentivize them going back into the workforce and helping with living expenses like rent, mortgage or utilities up to $10,000, but they had requirements which some people were willing to meet but others were not.
“There are people in an industry who are looking to change jobs, but they look at a job listing, and they want 10 years’ experience. They want it all on an engineering level. You can’t get that degree in a year or six months,” Jurczak said. “So, there’s all different things that play into this. Minimum wage is going up $2 an hour by 2025. We said from the beginning hat it’s going to increase other costs. No matter how much wages go up, everything else will go up because a business still needs to be profitable. We can raise it up to a million dollars an hour but everything else is going to go up $2 million. There’s no in between. We have to figure out some new stuff or get some kind of method so people can catch up.”
Norman stated that when she talks to parents who are facing homelessness or are already homeless, she found that not everyone was taught to fight for what they want. They may be excellent employees but have not had a raise for several years because they were never told they could go in and ask for one. She also explained that there are not many high paying jobs in the area which was also leading some to struggle financially. Moore also pointed out that even low-income housing may not resolve the problem.
“Affordable housing is based on income,” Moore said. “And everyone knows that as income rises, the price of that housing rises. So, paying higher wages can also price someone out of low-income housing. You are not going to solve this from a wage perspective. One of the things that can be done is to allow more density in city code. By adding more density to the unit, they will develop, you can have a lower price per unit for some of them for a one bedroom, two bedroom. I’ve worked in this for a while. So, one of the things that often isn’t done, they look at our code, because it’s out there. But if you can’t provide the capacity, that density in order to make it feasible for you to build, it’s not going to happen. So, for the City of Milford, we can look at our code and see what can we do to allow more density to encourage developers to build affordable housing so we can solve some of these problems.”
To learn more about affordable housing programs through USDA, visit www.usda.gov/topics/rural/housing-assistance or www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/single-family-housing-programs.
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