ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla — The workforce in St. Augustine is finding itself priced-out, unable to afford to live where they work because of the high cost of real estate.
However, one local restaurant owner is in a unique position to help.
Frank O'Rourke owns the Gypsy Cab Company restaurant in St. Augustine. He, like other restaurateurs -- has heard his employees loud and clear. They tell him they need to "make more money in order to live," he said.
That's because housing prices are sky high in St. Johns County, higher than any other county in northeast Florida.
"We tell them, 'We want to keep you. You’re good employees. We’ll do what we can to keep you.'" O'Rourke said.
The quick answer is raising wages. O’Rourke has done that.
But he also has another idea.
"I’m going to put my real estate hat on now," he smiled, telling First Coast News.
O’Rourke is also a real estate broker. His name is on “for sale” signs, such as one in front of a piece of land in West Augustine. It’s 5 acres.
"It’s probably too big for one or two homes," he said. And it's probably too small for a large apartment complex, but O’Rourke thinks it could turn into 25 units of workforce housing, homes that the middle class can afford.
So he’s been talking with folks such as Billy Zeits who is with Corner Lot Development Group in Jacksonville to see if they’re interested in taking on the project. The company already has two affordable housing projects in the works in St. Johns County.
Zeits said it’s tough to build homes people can afford here because of "the cost of the land. The cost of permitting and the construction costs in high desire markets such as St. Augustine and St. Johns County."
He said it's essential for government, development companies, and land owners to come together. "Government is not going to build houses. It’s not their job. People who own land bought it for a certain amount of money. and hope to sell it. They’ve got to be willing to be patient because development takes time."
And it seems like O’Rourke may have some patience because his employees may eventually be able to live in the homes on the land he is selling. And that would be closer to where they work.
"I would hope so," O'Rourke said. "That would be fantastic if they do. It’s a matter of: Can it be built? Can it be built affordably?"
For now, it’s a matter of working out the right recipe.