Employers act to prevent more job vacancies

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Several of Southwest Florida’s largest private employers are taking the scarcity of workforce housing into their own hands to avoid manpower shortages and damage to their business operations.

In what is likely a first in Collier County, the Moorings Park retirement community has teamed up with developers and purchased a Super 8 hotel at 3880 Tollgate Blvd. in East Naples.

The hotel will be converted into “dignified workforce housing”, according to K2 Developers based in Boulder, Colorado, and Miami. A third partner in the project is Invisible, a real estate investment platform.

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Separately, the region’s largest healthcare employers are offering substantial housing subsidies, have negotiated discounts with apartment complexes and are offering one-on-one assistance to help new recruits and employees with their housing needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic fueled the real estate market when retirees moved at a faster clip to Southwest Florida while at the same time many essential workers left jobs and businesses struggled to fill vacancies, experts say.

The surge in Southwest Florida as a destination market enabled landlords to substantially raise monthly rates or sell their rentals for top dollar, causing the limited supply of affordable workforce housing to plummet, according to the Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County.

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Employers say what’s at stake is a decline in service levels in the community due to the lack of workforce housing and ongoing job vacancies.

“I don’t think there is any doubt a number of factors from the pandemic have made it more difficult,” Dan Lavender, chief executive officer of Moorings Park, said.

A study earlier this year from the nonprofit research group Bright Community Trust in Clearwater found Collier is short about 10,000 affordable housing units.

What has Moorings Park done?

Moorings Park has been involved in efforts to address the affordable workforce housing issue for many years, Lavender said.

The current shortage “is getting to the point where it is a crisis,” he said.

Nurses and other medical personnel, restaurant workers, and government employees are just some examples of essential workers struggling with housing, said Andrew Korge, one of two co-founders and managing partner of K2 Developers.

“They are all very critical to each and every person in the community,” Korge said.

K2 is a “social-impact real estate development company” that is focusing on providing housing for essential workers and their employers in “ski, sand and entertainment destinations,” according to its website. A similar housing project is underway in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Collier’s plight “was really prominent and eye opening,” said Dan Kessler, the other co-founder and managing partner of K2.

Lavender said he was approached about six months ago by the developers about the Super 8 hotel.

The three parties closed Sept. 15 on the purchase for $9.6 million. The hotel is located on five acres at Interstate 75 and Collier Boulevard with 34,000 leasable square feet and is near a bus stop.

The 104-unit hotel will be remodeled, which is expected to take up to 18 months in a phased approach so some units can be occupied. Another $10 million will be spent on the renovations.

The property is currently zoned commercial and an application will be submitted to the county to rezone it to a multi-family use, Korbe said. That process could take nine months.

Even though the hotel sits on five acres, there are no plans to build more units or to consider purchasing properties in the immediate future in other locations in Collier or Lee to convert to workforce housing, Korge said.

Other employers are looking to reserve units and expect it be fully leased before the renovations are done, he said.

It is making a dent in the workforce housing shortage in the community and a solution that does not take years where new construction would, Kessler said.

“This is a tangible example of what can be done,” Kessler said.

Moorings Park has reserved 16 units for its employees on a first come, first serve basis. The plan is to wait until 2023 for Moorings Park employees to occupy the units.

“But if employees are interested sooner, we will adjust accordingly but our intent is to wait until 2023,” Lavender said.

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There is no income threshold for Moorings Park employees: They will have yearly leases and pay $1,200 a month for single occupancy or $1,400 for double occupancy, Lavender said.

Moorings Park has a workforce of 950 at its three upscale retirement community campuses. It has been able to fill about 100 vacancies in the last four months but had to significantly boost wages, in some cases as much as 35% for starting pay, he said.

How are hospitals helping their workforces?

The region’s two hospital systems, Lee Health in Lee County and the NCH Healthcare System in Collier County, have forged clear paths to help new recruits and current employees with housing needs.

The publicly-operated Lee Health, which is the largest private employer in Lee, is offering housing allowances of $1,800 a month for six months for new recruits in critical positions, including nursing, according to Michael Wukitsch, chief people officer for Lee Health.

The hospital system has nearly 15,000 employees and runs four acute care hospitals with a combined 1,865 beds, a children’s hospital and numerous outpatient-based services.

The system has a $2.5 billion operating budget and projects to spend $1.3 billion in the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1 on salaries, wages and benefits.

Relocation assistance is offered that starts at $2,500 for moves 50 miles or more and it can go up to $10,000 for critical care personnel, he said. A certified nursing assistant can get $2,500 in relocation help.

Employees live “everywhere from Sarasota down to Collier,” he said. “The majority of our employees live in Lee County.”

In addition, Lee Health is using an outside firm, Sunshine Relocation Inc., so new recruits can get help scoping out rentals or potential home purchases. The service became available before the current workforce housing crunch.

“This has been very strong for us,” Wukitsch said. “(The firm) is very attuned to what is happening in the area.”

The health system had 1,871 job openings the third week of August, down from 2,400 openings in March.

“We average hiring 140 people a week,” he said. The number who leave is around 50 a week. The 12-month rolling turnover rate is 16%.

“I do suspect as COVID is waning, we will see it decrease,” he said.

Lee Health has looked at getting directly involved in developing or acquiring workforce housing but hasn’t moved in that direction.

“Right now our housing package allowance is working,” he said. “It is very dynamic right now because of the nature of the housing market. I am not hearing anyone express it is the worst they have ever seen it. It is cyclical. My sense is it is acute.”

What the NCH Healthcare System is doing

The privately-operated NCH has taken several measures to help recruits and current employees, said Nadine Fraser, the system’s housing coordinator since February.

Her position was created to recruit and retain employees and help them with the current housing challenges.

NCH ​​has two hospitals with a combined 716 beds and numerous outpatient programs and a total workforce of 5,000.

“We have assisted over 200 staff members get into housing,” she said. “We are finding our new hires as well as employees are needing housing assistance.”

NCH ​​has negotiated discounts or waivers from the various application fees at nine apartment complexes that can add up to $500, she said. One complex is waiving pet deposits that can be as much as $300.

She declined to name the complexes but said seven are in Collier and two are in Bonita Springs.

NCH ​​is leasing 20 units in the Super 8 in East Naples that’s been purchased by Moorings Park and its partners. The 20 units will be available to employees starting Oct. 15, she said.

NCH ​​also negotiates fair market rates or discounts with property owners who are offering to rent their homes to employees or who are offering “home shares,” she said.

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“It is extremely common,” she said of home shares. “They know our employees are vetted. They know our employees are professionals.”

Two employees are getting into Habitat for Humanity Homes in East Naples, which is the result of NCH arranging for program officials to make presentations about the affordable homeownership program, she said.

What measures other health care employers are taking

Some other health-care employers are taking measures or considering it to address their workforce housing needs.

Avow Hospice in Collier recently purchased a building in North Naples that has two apartments which the nonprofit hospice organization will use for affordable housing for staff and for seasonal traveling nurses.

Avow has 267 employees, according to the nonprofit hospice organization.

“We are aware that affordable housing is of great concern to our staff,” Jaysen Roa, president and chief executive officer of Avow, said in a news release. “Even traveling nurses searching for housing in the area find that it is too expensive for their housing allowances, so they won’t consider assignments in Naples.”

The building at 9765 Tamiami Trail N. was previously For the Love of Golf and Avow is using it for a new Treasures Resale Shop. The two apartments collectively have three bedrooms.

In addition, the adjacent property offers space to expand Avow’s resale shop while also the potential to build additional staff housing in the future, according to Avow.

“We are planning to make Avow-owned apartments available for much-needed affordable housing for staff and traveling nurses as a pilot project,” Roa said. “This will be our first step as an individual entity addressing this growing issue.”

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There have been positions that are hard to fill but it has not impacted the ability to admit or care for patients because staff members offer to work extra days or hours, spokeswoman Renee Stoll said.

“In addition, we have several managers, directors and chiefs who are nurses that will jump into action when we are short staffed to assure patient care needs are met,” she said.

Arthrex, the international medical device manufacturer that is headquartered in North Naples, said it is working on the affordable housing issue. It has 3,500 employees in Southwest Florida.

“Currently, we have close to 600 job openings at Arthrex and approximately 25% of the job offers we make are declined due to the price of housing,” the company said in a statement. “Arthrex is collaborating with other partners in the area to address the issue of affordable housing and further details will be released at a later date.”

In 2019, David Bumpous, vice president of operations at Arthrex, told the Collier County Commission that the company was facing hardship filling positions because of the lack of affordable housing.

“We just can’t maintain the status quo,” Bumpous said at the time.

Arthrex expanded in Anderson County, South Carolina in 2017 with manufacturing and plans to create 1,000 jobs over five years where skilled labor is more plentiful.

Arthrex frequently ranks high on national surveys as “best places” to work, including Fortune magazine’s “best places in manufacturing” in 2021, coming in at the 10th spot.

To help with recruiting, Arthrex offers a relocation sign-on bonus in its benefits package, which new hires can use to get into housing “or however they see fit,” the company said.

“The talent acquisition team at Arthrex works with new hires to provide assistance and support in locating appropriate housing in our area,” the company said.

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