Workforce housing

A Prime Piece of Downtown Real Estate Has Been Earmarked for Workforce Housing

A partnership between Michael Saunders and Mark Vengroff will see 48 workforce housing units rise near Payne Park. Roughly 20 will be earmarked for law enforcement workers.

By Kim Doleatto May 10, 2024

A rendering of 295 School Ave., in Sarasota, by local architect Javí Suarez.

As rents, interest rates and homeownership costs spiked over the last few years, a lack of affordable housing has been plaguing the area, leading to talent loss and retention woes for employers across industries. Results of a Sarasota Chamber of Commerce survey of local businesses last year reported that 73 percent of respondents said they’ve been impacted due to the lack of affordable housing for employees. 

 “I think Sarasota is beginning to shine a spotlight on affordable housing, but we’re certainly late to the party,” says Michael Saunders, the real estate mogul who founded Michael Saunders & Company in 1976. “We have 170 employees. Our own can’t afford to live close to their place of employment. Over the years we’ve lost good workers who won’t come here or move away due to the cost of housing. And I know I’m just one of many seeing that as an employer.” 

Wanting to be part of the solution, she and Mark Vengroff of One Stop Housing, a longtime leader in developing affordable housing projects, recently partnered to bring 48 units to a long-vacant acre she owns on School Avenue. The mixed-use project is called On The Park.

The empty lot is across the street from Payne Park in Sarasota.

Image: Kim Doleatto

To respond to the need for affordable housing amid a flurry of development, the City of Sarasota has passed certain measures to address the dearth. They include density bonuses for developers who include a certain number of affordable units in their otherwise market-rate projects, and even the city's own affordable housing project proposal in downtown Sarasota, but many say it’s not enough.

Eschewing a piecemeal approach, all On The Park units will be priced for those earning between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income (AMI)—"a glaring gap that needs to be resolved,” says Vengroff. After learning about the challenge law enforcement staff share in finding affordable housing, Saunders and Vengroff are pledging roughly half of the units to them. 

A rendering of On The Park.

For a household of two, that 60 percent to 80 percent AMI in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton metro area household ranges from $48,240 to no more than $64,320 in annual income a year. In a household of four, 60 percent to 80 percent of the AMI is $60,300 to $80,400 a year. The starting salary for a Sarasota police officer is $61,000; it's roughly the same for a dispatcher. 

“This gap reflects the people who keep the train running. Without them, we have no infrastructure. It's really scary if we don't address it,” Vengroff says.

On The Park, named for its position across the street and to the east of Payne Park, will consist of one six-story building with 22 studios, 20 one-bedroom units and six two-bedroom apartments.

The vacant parcel, just under an acre in size, is prime real estate. It's located within a block of the Bay Runner shuttle stop, adjacent to the Legacy Trail, within 200 feet of the Health Department and less than a quarter-mile walk from the Sarasota County dispatch center.

The ground floor will be dedicated to commercial space. Although it’s too early to say what will occupy it, Saunders notes that now that Café in the Park has closed, that space could fill help fill a gap in casual dining.

The zoning for the parcel is "downtown edge,"  which allows for 25 units an acre, but employing the Live Local Act will allow a higher density of 50 units per acre.

Both experts in their industries, Saunders is donating the land, worth roughly $2.7 million in the current market, and Vengroff is doing what his One Stop Housing has been doing for decades: securing financing, developing and building the structure. Saunders will hold the land, while Vengroff’s team will manage On The Park once it's done. Units are to remain affordable for at least 40 years.

Once upon a time, before the Great Recession of 2008, the land was part of 9.6 acres that was originally conceived as a mixed-used project with 238 residential units. The City of Sarasota approved a development plan for the land in 2009 after most of it was purchased by David Weekley Homes, which in 2018 broke ground on the market-rate townhomes called Payne Park Village you see there today.

Saunders held the remaining acre thinking she'd use it to build a headquarters to consolidate Michael Saunders & Company's operations. But, she says, “Now that we have that [on Main Street in downtown Sarasota], I thought, 'How can I give back to a community that has been so good to me?'”

Sure, it would have made a great sale, she says, "but I felt a desire and passion for being part of the solution rather than increasing the problem and selling it for more expensive condos.” 

One Stop Housing has built and manages roughly 3,000 affordable units at or under 80 percent of the AMI across Sarasota and Manatee counties, with 800 more in the pipeline. (One is celebrating its grand opening next week.) It’s also active statewide and in Tennessee.

Some other local employers are getting the drift, too. Although One Stop Housing has been in the business of building affordable housing for decades, it’s only recently been engaging with local employers. 

According to Vengroff, the Pachota family, who own the popular Fins and Sharky's on the Pier restaurants in Venice, also own vacant land there and approached him about building affordable housing for staff.

"The parcel can house 150 units, so we are now looking for other businesses that want to partner and do the same for their employees," he says. "I recently met with Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County CEO Erin Silk, leaders from the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and other local employers to see about getting them to commit to investing in a community for their workers." 

"We’re replicating the model we’ve spearheaded with Eagle Rock, where eight employers are on board, and we’re close to locking in the land in Manatee County," he says.

The issue isn't just local, it's statewide, and Vengroff says that word is catching on. He's gotten calls from other Florida communities on the East Coast and in the center of the state to do similar projects. “There’s a ton of interest out there. Just about no one is building 100 percent workforce housing,” he says.

“We’re talking about the fabric of a healthy community," Saunders says. "You can’t have economic growth without creating it."

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