THE ISSUE: Due to rising rent, most apartments in Santa Rosa County cost more than full-time college students and families earning less than $35,000 annually can afford.

LOCAL IMPACT: Rising rents force more families and students to take on additional household members to spread the bills. Further, they reduce the chances of residents in poverty-experienced areas to improve their situation. The result can affect how some families function and students' chances for academic success. 

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MILTON — Santa Rosa County is caught in a nationwide high cost-of-housing trend and students are suffering for it.

The so-called housing wage in the county — that is, the wage necessary to afford an average apartment here in West Florida — is $17.25 per hour.

The fair market monthly rent in the county is $897, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2017 report.

“NLIHC’s annual report, Out of Reach, documents the gap between renters’ wages and the cost of rental housing,” the 2017 report says. The housing wage is the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford what the NLIHC considers a modest and safe rental home without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing costs.

"The housing wage is based on the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent, which is an estimate of what a family can expect to pay for a modest rental home.

“It’s cause and effect,” Santa Rosa County School District Director of Federal Programs Karen Barber said. “(If) a modest, two-bedroom apartment (has a) required income of $35,000 and you have limited access to post-secondary education and high-paying jobs, the effect is a large number of families must double up to make ends meet.”

The Florida Department of Education reported in 2016 that 1,567 students lived in shared housing situations.

It’s stressful for students in a home with multiple families in a small space.

“You don’t have enough base for a family to function,” Barber said, “without enough beds for everyone to sleep in…for kids to do homework.”

The FDOE also reported 33 students living in shelters, 36 in motels, and 14 in some other housing like a campground, car, abandoned building or other substandard housing as of its 2014-15 school year homeless record count.

These overcrowded living situations may hinder students completing homework.

Children sharing space may have inadequate room to work or lack access to school supplies. Parents in these situations may not be able to be as involved in their children’s homework or school activities, according to a 2016 Urban Institute report, “Housing as a Platform for Improving Education Outcomes among Low-Income Children.” 

The Out of Reach report also notes how many minimum wage jobs are necessary per household to afford the two-bedroom, fair market apartment.

Currently, the Santa Rosa County number is 2.1 jobs.

“How about the single parent?” Barber asked. “Will they work 2.1 full-time jobs and still find time to be an effective parent and be involved with that child’s school? It sets them up for failure here.”

Past Out of Reach reports showed an upward trend in the Santa Rosa County housing wage since 2012. From 2010 to 2012, the housing wage dropped from $15.37 an hour to $14.38. However, since then, the housing wage rose nearly $3 per hour as the cost for a two-bedroom, fair market rental rose from $748 in 2012 to $897 today.

Barber looks to public transportation for possible solutions, a topic her nonprofit group Bridges Out Of Poverty has championed since 2014. Bridges offers educational resources to those in need.

It unites people from all sectors and economic classes to improve job retention rates, build resources, improve outcomes and support those who are moving out of poverty, according to Barber.

That starts with having opportunities to work in other cities and counties, boosting income potential. 

“This is why people say you have to work two jobs to get by,” Barber said. “It speaks to me if our goal is for a community that is robust and has a good quality of life, then we need to remove those barriers so people can earn better-paying jobs than minimum wage … It supports need for public transit for better-paying jobs and post-secondary education.

"This is really the 'why' of why we need public transit.”

However, if Santa Rosa County is going to have public transportation, it needs Escambia County Area Transit, according to Santa Rosa County Interim Planning and Zoning Director Shawn Ward.

Yet ECAT’s future is in question with the Escambia County Commission.

Santa Rosa needs ECAT for multiple reasons. The county is not a direct recipient for federal transit funds because those dollars go to urbanized areas, not counties. Population density determines those.

“Additionally, ECAT has an existing system that works so there is no reason for Santa Rosa County to reinvent the wheel,” Ward said.

Escambia County commissioners have discussed ECAT moving under Escambia’s control, away from First Transit. Commission Chairman Doug Underhill expressed his concern about the cost to run ECAT and the future need of a fixed-route public transportation system.

Commission Chairman Doug Underhill has expressed his concern about the cost to run ECAT and the future need of a fixed-route public transportation system.

ECAT costs $13 million, Underhill said, with riders paying $1 million of the cost. Despite complaints coming down since 2015, a working smartphone application, and state-of-the-art buses, ECAT ridership continues to decline, Underhill said, with some routes transporting one to two passengers per hour.

Despite complaints coming down since 2015, a working smartphone application, and state-of-the-art buses, ECAT ridership continues to decline, Underhill said, with some routes transporting one to two passengers per hour.

Public transportation would never pay for itself, according to Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May. It not only serves the most vulnerable population but employs them he said.

“They only pay the people $8 an hour,” he said.

He doesagree with Underhill in the need for more efficiency.

While there’s uncertainty of ECAT in Escambia, Ward said, he’s still trying to work with Escambia.

Santa Rosa County would still have to pay 50 percent of operating costs to bring ECAT into the county, according to Ward. With stormwater mitigation high among the county’s priorities and the looming Homestead Exemption Bill vote, Ward doubts the county would support this recurring cost. Meanwhile, the state is reducing funding for the transportation disadvantaged program, which provides transport for medical, employment, or education purposes to the disabled and those who can’t afford their own transportation.

“The state just pulled $86,000 from us on that. They’re cutting funding this year, from what I understand, from all urbanized areas,” Ward said.

Faith transit is on hold as well since Ferris Hill Baptist Church pastor, Brian Nall, left to take a position as the executive director of the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association.

Roughly three years ago, Barber helped bring the need for public transportation to the SRC Commission. Despite these challenges, she remains hopeful in local leadership’s support for public transportation.

“I think the leadership in our county, the majority, understands that public transportation is a viable ingredient toward having a stable and thriving community,” she said.