Homeless service providers last week put their support behind a plan that many are hopeful will be the beginning of a private-sector solution to the affordable housing shortage in St. Johns County.

The plan, voted on by members of the county’s Continuum of Care, came out of an ad hoc committee formed by that body which is the umbrella organization of all service providers to the county’s most vulnerable.

The vote came Wednesday morning during the Continuum's annual meeting and after a presentation by Continuum vice chair and committee member Jerry Cameron.

“Affordable housing is expensive” was Cameron's opening message to the members in attendance.

And with federal and state purse-string tightening in recent years, he said, the future does not look promising for the prospect that public money is going to put a meaningful dent in the county’s shortage.

“In short, there is no way that St. Johns County is going to come up with the kind of money that would make a substantial impact on affordable housing,” he said.

That, Cameron went on to explain, left the committee, which also included St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver, St. Johns Housing Partnership Executive Director Bill Lazar, and United Way of St. Johns County President and CEO Melissa Nelson (as well as County Housing and Community Services Manager Joseph Cone serving in a advisory role), with looking for a private-sector solution.

And doing that, they decided, would mean removing regulatory impediments believed to have pushed builders away from that portion of the market.

“Regulation, development costs and multiple fees raised the cost of homes where the private sector is no longer interested in investing in the affordable housing market,” Cameron said during his presentation. “We have seen that over and over, even new apartments that are getting built, those apartments are going to rent for $1,000 a month.”

“The obvious solution is to remove the regulatory cost of home construction and to mitigate the regulatory obstacles,” he added.

Many of those obstacles, including impact fees, put in place to help manage the growth in the state and county, have had the unintended consequence of driving up home home costs.

“It literally costs tens of thousands of dollars for each housing unit that you put out there in regulatory costs,” he said. “And it pushes the end product out of the affordable range.”

Lazar, in a phone conversation with The Record on Friday, said much the same thing.

He pointed out that the impact fees for a home in the 800 to 1,250 square foot range are around $11,000 which is a sizeable price increase on a smaller home.

“That 800 to 1,250 [square foot home],” he said. “That’s kind of your starter home footprint.”

Lazar, who works in the business daily, said there are ways to get affordable housing built and he exercises many of them to do his job. But the paperwork and the hurdles involved do tend to keep out builders that aren’t focused specifically on providing that type of end product.

“It scares off anybody other than the people who are actively involved in the business,” he said. “We will do it because we know it and for us it is a cost of doing business.”

And when one looks around and sees that only nonprofits are building affordable housing, that typically means there is a problem in the market, he said.

Further complicating matters, Lazar said, is that by not having a ready supply of homes in that “starter” range creates a choke point throughout the housing “continuum.”

He said he is convinced that there are families renting now that would move into that size home if they could find an affordable one. And allowing them to move would free up the apartment or other property they are renting so someone further down the continuum could move up.

The hope behind the proposed plan is that by removing some of those costs and even allowing some fast-tracking in the permit process, builders would re-enter the market.

“In exchange for these incentives the developer would agree to a certain price point for sales and rentals for a certain period of time,” Cameron explained during his presentation.

While details of the final plan are still being worked out, it will include provisions to keep rent within a certain range, if it is apartments being built, as well as rules that would keep profit-seekers from “flipping” a newly built home.

What Cameron pitched on behalf of the committee, and the Continuum voted on, was seeking approval from the Board of County Commissioners “in concept” with a draft ordinance to be presented later.

The final plan itself would be a 600-unit pilot program for commissioners and county leadership to get a feel for whether or not the approach would be workable on a larger scale.

That number, Cameron explained in the presentation and in a later phone interview, is significant because it represents less than 1 percent of all approved and unbuilt units in the county and will give officials an opportunity to see, not only if it will re-engage private sector builders, but if there will be any physical impacts or unintended consequences.

Service providers at the meeting agreed to put their names to letters to commissioners and county leadership voicing their support for the program.

If leaders agree in concept, the committee agreed to have a final draft of the ordinance done in 120 days from that point.

Cameron thanked the Continuum members at the end of his presentation saying “I hope that this will be the beginning of some real progress.”