The Pasco unit of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County recently hosted a webinar aimed at raising awareness about the “Economic Security in Pasco County during the COVID Outbreak.”
Panelists provided a look into Pasco County’s and the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc.’s response to those struggling individuals and businesses — due to COVID-19.
The panelists also discussed ongoing programs aimed at helping people keep a roof over their heads, helping the homeless secure housing; and helping people develop skills to lead to higher-paying jobs.
Chris Conn, voter services chair of the league’s Pasco unit moderated the session, which featured Marcy Esbjerg, director of Pasco County’s community development department; Brian Hoben, community services director in Pasco County; Don Anderson, CEO of the Pasco Homeless Coalition; and Mike Bishop, director of stakeholder engagement at the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc.
Besides discussing specific programs, the speakers fielded questions. One related to a perception by some that people receiving help might not truly need it, or are duping the system.
Esbjerg responded: “We need to be the voice for people who don’t have a voice. So many of our vulnerable citizens do not have a forum to have a voice.
“Let’s look at what the public narrative is. The public narrative is very quick to share about the people who have gamed the system. The people that are taking PPP (federal paycheck protection program) money, and buying Lamborghinis and yachts; the people that forged Publix memos so that they could get their rent paid — all of those kind of things.
“So, why are we not sharing the real need? The real true need of people? Why don’t they get as much time, if not more?
“The most important thing that we (program administrators) can do is make sure that we deliver our services effectively, efficiently and equitably — and we make sure they’re getting out to the right people, and the people that really need it,” Esbjerg said.
When it comes to ensuring an adequate supply of workforce housing and housing for the homeless, the government needs to intervene and subsidize, Esbjerg said.
It needs to encourage the development of workforce housing, she said. It also needs to help homeless people transition into stable housing.
A community needs a balance in its housing inventory, she said.
“Right now, Pasco County has a high percentage of single-family owner-occupied housing, it’s like 72% to 28% rental housing. That’s not balanced,” she said.
“Rental housing doesn’t just affect low-income people. It affects seniors downsizing. It affects millennials who saw their parents get burned by the housing market and they’re not willing to become new homeowners, at this point,” she said.
“We want a community that takes care of all members of the community,” she said, and that means having housing for those transitioning out of homelessness to market-rate million dollar homes, and everything in between.
Recognizing real need
Bishop observed that there are real needs in the community and they must be recognized.
“Big buildings and equipment are great in business, but that’s not what makes business happen. It’s the people. We need to take care of our people, and understand that people that have challenges need assistance, and that’s a real thing.
“We went through a very rough time. We’re still going through that right now. We’re all together. Divisiveness needs to stop,” he said.
Anderson said exposure to the struggle helps to build empathy.
“I think putting a face on homelessness, or those that are disenfranchised, is the best thing we can do. I think it leads to compassion and understanding,” he said.
Hoben and Esbjerg said the county is administering programs that provide rental assistance, utility assistance, housing rehab and property tax assistance. Details about those programs are available on the county’s website.
In Pasco, Esbjerg said, housing costs are not the problem. Low wages are the big issue, she said.
“There are so many families that are cost-burdened, that are spending more than 30% of their income on housing,” she said.
Efforts are being made to improve that picture, Bishop said. The Pasco EDC and the county work to recruit companies that offer higher wages, he said. Plus, there are training programs, such as AMSkills, that aim to equip workers for better-paying jobs.
Anderson told listeners about the ALICE Report. The acronym stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
These are the people who don’t own property or have other assets, he said. They are working, but have little income.
Their housing requires a large percentage of their income — making them vulnerable to becoming homeless, he said.
“If there’s any silver lining to the COVID pandemic, it’s the monies that are coming down that allow us to address homelessness,” Anderson said.
Right now, Pasco is focused on a Housing Surge.
“The county commissioners, via community development and Marcy and her team, allotted the coalition $3.8 million over two years, to house 225 households in a span of months,” Anderson said.
The downside is the lack of available rental units.
To combat the lack of rental units, Anderson said, “We’ve asked the community, when you see a ‘For Rent’ sign, whether it’s a room, an apartment, a trailer, a house — we want you to take a picture with your cellphone, and we want you to send it to .”
Esbjerg believes the Housing Surge’s success will boost the overall quality of life in Pasco County.
“All too often we connect economic prosperity, or stability, with higher-paying jobs and more money,” she said.
But, she argues that stability of housing is critical to improving the overall quality of life.
When people have a home, she said, “they’re able to engage in the community and shop at the local stores, and things like that.”
Housing 30% of the county’s homeless will have a significant impact, she said.
“I think will be transformative for our community, for the individuals that experience it, and for quality of life as a whole — which will extend to positive economic outcomes for the entire community.
“You’ll be able to see the difference in our community,” Esbjerg predicted.
Check these resources:
- Pasco County: PascoCountyFl.net (Click on specific departments), or call Community Development, 727-834-3450; Community Services, 727-834-3287
- The Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County: PascoHomelessCoalition.org, 727-842-8605
- Pasco Economic Development Council Inc.: PascoEDC.com, 813-926-0827
Published March 24, 2021