Mayor: Lakeland Is ‘5,000 Residences Short’ for a City Its Size

Skyrocketing home values and rental rates are issues across Central Florida but rising housing costs in Lakeland are particularly acute because it is “5,000 residences short” for a city its size, Mayor Bill Mutz said at a forum on housing and homelessness.

“It is supply and demand” and there’s far more demand than supply available in the city right now, he said Thursday during the “Humanity, Housing and Homelessness” forum at Catapult Lakeland hosted by the Homeless Coalition of Polk CountyThe Salvation ArmyPolk for RecoveryTalbot House Ministries and LkldNow.

Mutz said developers are responding to a housing market need with a recent spate of multi-family proposals collectively totaling about 1,000 apartment units that are before the city’s planning and zoning board for preliminary review before being presented to the city commission for final approval.

Forum moderator was Andrea Oliver, center. Panelists on the right side of the screen are, from left, Bill Mutz, Lakeland mayor; Brenda Reddout, executive director of Talbot House Ministries; Megan Peterson, domestic violence primary prevention advocate at Peace River Center; and Ben Ruch, Polk County Public Schools homeless liaison. Panelists on the left side of the screen include Bridget Engleman, center, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Polk County, flanked by Erica and Barbara, two women who have experienced homelessness. (Apologies for the subpar audio; it’s a result of a computer crash that occurred just before the forum began.)

On March 21, the commission approved the first of those proposed complexes and on Monday, it will cast a final vote on a proposed 244-unit apartment complex at the Lake Miriam Shopping Center that has galvanized widespread opposition among residents.

Atlanta-based Preferred Apartment Communities‘ proposal is the lone public hearing scheduled for Monday’s meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. in City Hall, 228 S. Massachusetts Ave.

Mutz said building more housing is the best way to reduce the cost of housing and, in turn, mitigate a swell in homelessness across the region.

“We can’t do a little. We have to do a lot” he said, adding more multifamily complexes to the city’s housing stock, even at “market rate” rents, is a priority for the commission.

But Mutz said that in addition to encouraging developers to invest in multifamily projects, the city is aggressively sponsoring workforce and affordable housing projects throughout the city.

Lakeland secured $127 million in private investment for affordable and workforce housing projects by leveraging $5.464 million in funding and incentives from city, state and federal sources for 581 multi-family units that have been built or are currently under construction.

On the books for 2022 are 160 more affordable housing units with a pending deal for an 180-unit complex being negotiated, and another 202 dwellings possible in two planned but unfunded workforce housing projects, Lakeland Director of Community Development Teresa Maio told commissioners last month.

Seven multi-family projects are completed or under construction,  including Banyan Development Group’s $22.4 million 139-unit Banyan Reserve senior apartment complex that the city provided $673,177 in enticements for. The others:

  • Parker Pointe: 88 units on Bella Vista Street with 61 at 60% or below 2020 Lakeland area median income of $41,200 or about $25,000 annually for a single person. Private investment: $21.278. City contribution: $1.287 million. 
  • Swan Landing: 88 units on Griffin Road with 69 at 50% or below median income. Private investment: $21 million. City contribution: $460,000,
  • Swan Lake Village: 84 units on Griffin Road all at 60% or below median income. Private $20.38 million/$807,000 city.
  • Midtown Lofts: 80 units on Parker Street with 72 at 60% or below median income. Private $16.227 million/$800,000 city.
  • Twin Lakes II: 68 units on Lake Beulah Drive all  at 60% or below. $21.643 million/$607,638.
  • Vermont Place: 16 units on Vermont Avenue all at 30% or below. $922,479/$290,000. 

“We work diligently to not just align with just one or two developers” to build the projects but many “in a very wise way, on a long-term basis,” Mutz said. “We’re doing it as a smart city. Smart growth is essential” to providing a mix of housing types to the city’s rental housing market.

While there are as many as 1,000 apartments in the approval pipeline, more than 3,000 single-family homes have been approved and are being built, according to city planners.

Mutz said there is another component to developing affordable/workforce housing through tax credits and other incentives for project developers to set aside a certain percentage of their units for low-income and other qualified tenants.

Talbot House Ministries Executive Director Brenda Reddout said during Thursday’s forum that the tax credit programs that set aside 10% of an apartment complex for affordable/workforce housing tenants are not enough and expire in 10 to 15 years.

“What happens at the end of the 10-15 years?” she asked. “That’s a trap. We’re looking at the needs of now, not 20 years down the road. I don’t know how you solve for the future, for people on the lowest rungs of the ladder.”

“We don’t do 10%, we do 25-35%” in “market rate” apartment complexes to 100% in projects such as the seven being built or completed in the last year, Mutz said. 

One of the reasons for integrating affordable housing into new housing projects and building them in various parts of the city is to avoid “pocketing them” in the same areas, he said.

Mutz said despite soaring rents and home values, Lakeland is still “more affordable than Orlando,” a remark that drew rebuttal from several panelists and attendees who said it could be just the opposite since salaries are generally lower in the area than in Tampa or Orlando.

The mayor said the city must face facts and prepare for what is coming — whether current residents like it or not.

“What is driving housing costs up is a lack of homes,” he said, noting some projections say a half-million people” will be living in Lakeland by 2045. 

“There is no little — we are being as aggressive as possible” in adding multifamily complexes to the city’s housing stock, Mutz said.