Minerva Rosa didn’t know what to do. The rental prices of her Oviedo apartment had risen beyond her budget and she didn’t think she could find something within the city that she could afford.
Her neighbor told her about the low rental prices at Academy Place Villas – the 30 units operated by the Seminole County Housing Authority, which are tucked behind Jackson Heights Middle School, just off of County Road 419. She filled out an application and within a few months received a letter saying that a unit was available but that it was first-come, first-served.
“I shot over here right away,” Rosa said from her living room, the walls of which she’s painted a tranquil beige color and filled with family photos over the eight years she’s lived there.
The Housing Authority website states that the current wait time for a public housing unit is three years. Housing Authority Executive Director Shannon Young says it’s probably longer.
Of the 30 units, she said about five turn over each year.
“The one-bedroom, someone has to die for those units to open up, so the list does not move at all on the public housing side.”
Young told the Oviedo City Council during a work session in March that the office keeps the waiting list closed most of the time because of the deluge of applications they get when it’s open. The waitlist for 3- and 4-bedroom units opened a year ago and there were so many applications – 2,000 in three days – that it crashed the website.
For one- and two-bedroom units, the agency is still working through the wait list they had to close in 2014, which was the last time the list opened and the office received about 9,000 applications. In her 17 years with Seminole County, the waiting list has opened three times.
Young said they’re down to the last 50 applicants on that 9,000-applicant list. Young said of those 9,000, only about 300 received assistance. The rest were purged from the list over time, either due to a lack of response when their name was finally called or a change in need.
Now the Housing Authority and the city are exploring increasing the number of units allowed at the Academy Place Villas property. Young’s goal is to increase capacity there to 100 units.
Increasing the number of housing units allowed in a specific area can be difficult because it requires changing local zoning codes. Oftentimes, this requires approval from several city boards, including the City Council. But Young said the city has been favorable toward the initiative.
“If we could come back with 100 units, 120 units, that’s a game changer,” she said.
She said the county would cover costs to pack the current residents’ belongings, move them into temporary housing, and move them back when the construction is finished.
“We’re not moving any dirt until we have secured every family that is currently on property with a [housing] voucher or in another property,” Young said.
A growing need
According to Habitat for Humanity Seminole-Appoka, nearly half of low-income families in Seminole County and the Greater Apopka area spend more than 50% of their income on rent due to high housing costs in the Central Florida area. Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as housing where the occupant is paying no more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs.
A low-income family is defined as “a family at or below 80% of area median income”, according to the Florida Housing Coalition, which in 2022 in Seminole County was $80,100.
HUD’s 2023 income limit for public housing is $66,300 (50% of the area median income) for a family of four. The limit for the Section 8 voucher program (or Housing Choice Voucher), which provides monetary assistance people can use to pay for housing, in Seminole County is $41,500 for a family of four.
Young said the agency sees countless residents who are struggling with their income who don’t qualify for support.
“We’re serving low, low income and maybe some very low incomes, but a lot of times when we have to tell someone they’re over income I’m like, ‘$30,000 is not a lot of income’,” Young said, referring to the $29,050 income limit for a housing voucher for a single person.
Young also told the Oviedo City Council in March that up until last year, the 30-unit Oviedo property was some of the only public housing left standing in Seminole County. The Sanford Housing Authority recently rebuilt its public housing units.
But funding availability for the growth of the housing authority campus is unknown. The state typically funds around 10 such projects in medium- to small-population counties in Florida (such as Seminole), of which there are around 40, per year. Seminole does not expect to find out if they’ve been awarded funding for the expansion until October. This is the seventh year the county has applied.
Academy Place Villas resident Xavi Muniz said regardless of possible changes to his community, he hopes the basic requirements for him and his family to continue living there won’t change.
“I hope for it to be the same, to be run the same way it is here, going off of how much money we make,” Muniz said. “Because if it turned into another Oviedo on the Park where they just build expensive apartments and now we know we gotta go because we got nowhere to go. We got nowhere to live. We don’t have money like that.”
The Housing Authority also administers Section 8 vouchers, or the Housing Choice Voucher Program countywide, where “very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled” are given a government-funded stipend for rental expenses.
Like the housing wait list, the Section 8 voucher program wait list also often remains closed due to a higher ratio of applicants versus availability. The last time that list was open in 2021, the county had 1,835 applicants.
Where is the need?
Here’s the breakdown showing where the folks who applied for (and qualified based on family composition) Oviedo’s public housing in 2019 come from:
|Type of unit applied for||Total applications||Seminole County totals||Oviedo||Winter Springs||Chuluota|
Young said folks from all over the state and country apply for housing authority units, hoping to find a fit. She said that although the numbers of local folks applying for housing are comparatively low, there’s still a strong case for expanding the campus.
“Affordable housing is a crisis everywhere. Where there are units, people will go,” she said.
Of the 1,835 applicants for housing vouchers 300 were from Seminole. And of those in Seminole, 47 were from Oviedo, 24 were from Winter Springs, two were from Chuluota and none were from Geneva. Young estimated that the agency issues between 50-100 vouchers a year.
Like with public housing, folks from all over the state and country apply for housing vouchers, which accounts for the large number of applications outside of Seminole County. The Housing Authority prioritizes Seminole County applications as well as applications from the elderly, the disabled and working families.
In total, Seminole County has about 400 vouchers from out-of-state housing authorities, where those systems pay Seminole to subsidize their former residents’ rents. Young said she has a family from as far away as Hawaii who now live here through the voucher system.
She said the county gets around $50,000 a month from the City of Orlando for voucher program recipients who came from there but live in Seminole. Another $40,000 comes from Deland – those are the top two locations that pay for vouchers in Seminole. And the system works the other way as well. Find public housing availability across the country here.
Young said the units in Academy Place Villas were built in 1959, making them nearly 64 years old.
During the city Council Work session, Young said the units were becoming “challenging” to maintain and are being “bandaided” together.
Though the agency would like to be able to update the units for residents, the process can be difficult.
“We would love to be able to tear them down and build better, beautiful, pretty updated modern units,” Young said. “And that money would come from the state. We would utilize the low-income tax credits to do that. We’ve been applying for about six years for that property and it’s very competitive.”
The agency hosted a meeting five years ago to discuss the idea of rebuilding with residents when they first began submitting the necessary applications. Young said most residents were supportive of the idea and that recently meetings were held again as the agency prepares for the possible project while waiting on the tax credits to come in.
In the end, the Seminole County Housing Authority is, much like its residents, at the will of the federal government and the county in terms of what it can do.
“It’s troublesome, you know, from our standpoint … we’re making life and death decisions for people every day unfortunately and our hands are tied,” Young said. “We’re mandated federally so we have to do what the government says. And can I think of 100 other ways that this program could be better? Sure. But we will play the hand we’re dealt and we do the best we can.”
Social services step in to meet needs
Young said employed housing authority residents often live paycheck to paycheck and have been impacted during significantly difficult economic periods, such as the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When the world shut down with Covid, we never thought we’d be doing the amount of income changes we were doing,” Young said. “But that’s where our families work. They work at Disney World. They work in the restaurants and the bars and the nail salons and in the places that we couldn’t go.”
Because of the high costs of living, the non-profit HOPE Helps in Oviedo has seen more people who work full-time come to them for assistance. HOPE Helps offers financial assistance, counseling, food and clothes to Seminole County residents.
“We have young families, we have retired elderly on fixed income and everything in between,” Patricia Genao, program and case manager for HOPE Helps said.
She said in the past, her clients typically needed help due to illness or the lack of education and training to get a higher paying job. Now, her clients work full-time at jobs that pay what was once considered a decent wage but because of inflation they need the assistance.
According to an email from Genao, about ⅓ of the organization’s financial recipients come from Oviedo, Winter Springs, Geneva and Chuluota. The rest are dispersed throughout Seminole County.
Deborah Del Moral of the Sharing Center program said that though a majority of families coming to them for assistance in their client services department are closer to the organization, plenty come from locations such as Oviedo, Winter Springs, Geneva and Chuluota.
“60% being closest to us, and the other 40% being the areas of Oviedo and Geneva and all that,” Del Moral said. “I can say that because not all of them have transportation to get to us.”
There isn’t much flexibility when it comes to meeting the financial needs of residents, Young said. Their yearly budget from HUD caps the number of people they can serve.
“So we have to use 95% of the money or 95% of the vouchers and in today’s rental market, that’s getting harder and harder” Young said. “I mean, you can’t touch a one-bedroom now for under $1,400.”
The median rent in Seminole County in June 2023 was $1,734 according to Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse, a nearly 4.8% increase from December 2021. According to Zumper, a privately owned North American rental platform, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment as of August 2023 in Oviedo is $1,841 while the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Winter Springs is $1,803. These numbers represent a 2% and 13% increase compared to previous years, respectively.
During the county work session, Young said the agency pays out over $9 million of rental subsidy to landlords and private owners in Seminole County each year, and averages about $900,000 monthly in rental assistance. Five years ago it was $600,000.
“It’s not because we have new vouchers, it’s because the rents have gone up that much,” Young said. “…my maximum is capped based on what their income is and anything over that falls to the tenant which is where we’re gonna’ see the eviction uptick because they’re not paying 30% anymore, they’re paying 50%. So even though they have the help, they’re still drowning.”
Lily Kyle and Megan Stokes contributed to this article.
This is the third installment of an ongoing housing series exploring housing-related issues and solutions in Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs.
About this series: OCN spends a lot of time listening to its readers and you’ve told us that housing is an important issue to you. OCN has spent months talking with residents, its Community Advisory Board and local leaders to create this series of articles. Some articles will focus on specific areas within Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs while others will involve the entire coverage area. Local public housing was one issue readers asked us to explore.
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