Protest poster image shows dark high-rises towering over downtown Fort Myers. Caption: NO! Save Fort Myers

NO! Save Fort Myers from the ‘Midtown’ high-rise plan. Image: OurTown

Are luxury condos in high-rise towers the answer to SWFL’s housing affordability crisis? That’s the question at the center of the controversy over changes happening at City Hall.

The City of Fort Myers has proposed changes to its Comprehensive Plan: the bureaucratic blueprint for our city’s future. The changes were proposed in September by local developer Robert MacFarlane at a Planning Board meeting, and aim to help developers of high-rise apartment buildings by reducing rules and simplifying costs for them, and also make the process faster and more predictable by removing public hearings.

The vote on these changes has been postponed til August 7th due to growing local opposition.

The City says these changes will create the housing Millennials desperately need: it’s no secret that many local young adults here have to live with family, even with a steady job. But a growing coalition of local citizens say that’s not true.

Local community group OurTown: Positive Growth Coalition of SWFL says the changes will not deliver any new housing that will be affordable for most local young adults — and worse, will likely shut them out of living downtown entirely. They point to decades of prior developer-led changes, and the broken promises that accompany them.

The median income in Fort Myers is $23,096 and the median household income is $37,360. A rule of thumb says a person can afford a home costing around 3x their annual income. This would mean the average Fort Myers single person needs a home costing under $75,000, and the average household needs a $112,000 home. One condo developer advertises studios starting at $220k, and this would likely be the most affordable new apartment available in downtown Fort Myers — three times what the average single worker can afford. Living hundreds of feet in the sky is expensive: shiny steel, glass and concrete towers are a luxury product.

OurTown say that the primary beneficiaries of the changes to the Comp Plan will be downtown land owners, whose land will jump in value when development allowances increase. They say the increased land value after up-zoning shuts out other kinds of development: the land is now priced for a high-rise, so developers of smaller buildings cannot afford it, and land sits vacant until there’s sufficient demand for another tower.

Fort Myers has no demand for high-rise towers: there are hundreds of condos on the market right now, selling slowly. By zoning as though we were Manhattan, we may instead cause our city to slowly rot. Cities grow incrementally: they do not leap from here to Manhattan in one change. Fort Myers’ natural next steps are to fill the many vacant lots here with ‘more of the same’, i.e. modest, low-rise homes and small commercial buildings.

The high-rise towers that will be built under these changes are not for locals. The EB-5 investor visa program provides a green card in two years for foreign nationals who spend $500K on off-the-plan real estate in an approved development. Bringing money to the area is a worthwhile goal, but offering housing to wealthy foreigners while locals go without is not the strategy we need right now.

In response to citizen opposition, the City promised to hold a series of meetings to listen to community concerns before voting on the Comp Plan changes.

Fort Myers needs affordable homes for locals — not just more vacation condos we can’t afford.

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