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Affordable Housing

New Florida development aims to give rent-burdened workers a leg up


Terms like “rent burdened” and “housing crisis” are accurate as far as they go. But they also put an economic lens on a much broader problem: There are millions of Americans who, despite working as hard as they can for well beyond regular full-time hours, have little chance of breaking a cycle of substandard housing that costs so much of their income and time that improving their families’ plights is all but out of reach.

When the Pulte Family Charitable Foundation (a non-profit trust unaffiliated with the housing developer) came to Immokalee, Florida, they heard about a slew of intertwined challenges. In this agricultural town less than 40 miles from swanky Naples, farm workers and associated service industry workers struggle with inadequate housing and minimal support services. The median net worth in the city of 28,000 is just $13,000, with rent as a percentage of income at a sky-high 70%. 

The foundation’s team heard about families, already sharing shoddy trailers to save money, being hit with 150% rent increases. They saw a built environment that all but required a car, even when the cost of ownership was out of reach for so many residents. And they observed that the private market was not addressing the needs for safe, affordable housing that offered stability and dignity to the families in Immokalee.

So, the foundation, working in partnership with a local nonprofit called Nuestra Senora de la Vivienda Community Foundation, decided to fund and build a completely new neighborhood that seeks to mitigate many of the challenges it learned about. It’s now working on a project that will bring 180–200 single-family homes on 50 acres with gridded streets with sidewalks. A preschool and social support office offering language and financial literacy services will be onsite. Units will be targeted to be affordable to residents at 30–80% area median income, with rents as low as $674 for a two-bedroom house.

“I really wanted to set out to create a neighborhood rather than a development,” said Andrew VanValin, who’s designing and managing the project, called Monarca, for the Pulte Foundation. He describes how the listening tour, which included meetings with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and many social support organizations, informed so many of the design decisions, starting with the call to build single-family homes. “Most affordable housing developments are apartments with parking lots around them. And it just doesn't really create that sense of neighborhood.”

Seeking to “replicate older neighborhoods,” VanValin will include front porches on all the houses, sidewalks on both sides of a block, and parallel parking in the street. A six-acre community park with a retention lake sits within two blocks of any house.

Interviews with prospective residents showed that many needed to keep service vehicles at home, which is problematic at many rental properties. So, the development will build an oversized parking lot for work vehicles, both for safe storage and to preserve the neighborhood quality at street level. And in a place where so many workers are exposed to chemicals in the fields, each house will feature an outdoor shower so they can decontaminate before entering the house. 

For John Scannell, executive director of Nuestra Señora, which will coordinate with other social service organizations for the new neighborhood’s residents, “it's not just housing.” He says many prospective residents have never had access to early childhood education, healthcare, and financial counseling. Scannell had previously worked for the housing authority in Boca Raton, and said services that were readily available in the city are much harder to find in rural Immokalee. He hopes that these programs—combined with reducing the spirit-crushing burdens of meeting exorbitant rents—can help transform local lives. 

Scannell sympathetically describes the plights of the people who will benefit from the project. "Most of the workers go to work six days a week. And then they come home, and especially in the summer months, they're exhausted from working in the fields. And they're already doing everything other people would do in other places, like multiple families in units, to reduce the rent-to-income ratio. They're already doing everything they can. Then they have one day [off] left to really do anything else."

VanValin emphasizes that just as important as the quality of the housing is the reliability of the management. “The stability of having a landlord that is going to be fair, and not go for 50% or 60% [rent] increases from one year to another, I think is really key in helping families.” Freed of the immediate housing stress, “they can plan a little better, they can look a little bit more long term.”

Planning and permitting for the project will be completed by the end of this year. Construction is scheduled to start in 2025 with a goal of bringing the first residents into 64 new homes in early 2026. 

Scannell points out that challenges at this scale are not just a question of rich and poor. Coming full circle on the housing crisis, Scannell says Boca Raton has a similar problem, albeit much higher up the salary ladder. Housing has become so expensive in South Florida that some applicants have had to refuse jobs from the city government and Florida Atlantic University because they couldn’t afford adequate housing at the going rate.

Affordable Housing, Immokalee, Florida, Strong Towns, Pulte Foundation


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  • Stephenphillips

    All the programs in immokalee cater to farm workers but non farm workers get turn down for everything I'm disable and don't meet the income requirements to get help with anything been turn down for habit 3 times rental help programs I lost count how many times I've been turn down but more and more developments being built to help the farm works by the way there already a development that was built here for farm workers just many choose not to live there because of where its located

    Wednesday, March 20 Report this