On a patch of land in Valparaiso, one man hopes to start a housing revolution for the residents around Eglin Air Force Base.
Niceville Native Paul Sjoberg arrived in the area like many other people do. His dad was military, which meant a move every few years. Niceville quickly became his hometown.
He graduated from Niceville High School, then from the University of Florida, and got a job in the defense industry in Washington, D.C.
While up in Virginia, he caught the real estate market bug and began investing in northern Virginia and the Niceville and Valparaiso areas.
But home still called to him – and he began to look around for ways to make Niceville and Valparaiso better places to live.
He partnered with two Niceville residents, Jason Rosenbleeth and Ryan Cabaniss, to build what people now call ‘attainable housing’ in our area.
Their project, called The Clearing, will be built in Valparaiso, which has lower land costs than Niceville and less housing density. The homes will sit near Kelly Mill and Johnson Street.
“I noticed a significant housing shortage [in Niceville and Valparaiso] just like in the rest of the United States. But it’s amplified here just because we’re surrounded by the military base on one side and water on the other. And so, I immediately started to look for opportunities to kind of help solve the problem,” Sjoberg said.
Before this project, Sjoberg made a smaller bet on the Twin Cities – two homes in Valparaiso, already built and rented out.
The homes in The Clearing will be three-bedroom, two-bathroom units with no garages or other luxury amenities. ‘The goal is to serve the bottom tier of the market because prices seem to keep going up in Niceville and Val-p,” Sjoberg said, “If we can provide more base-level housing, that is what we are trying to do with our building project.”
Put simply, there aren’t enough entry-level places to live in Niceville – either apartments, which reduce rent costs for renters while improving margins for landlords – or single-family detached homes.
Sjoberg, Rosenbleeth, and Cabaniss “hemmed and hawed” about building an apartment complex on the land they bought – but discovered the insurance industry was the biggest stumbling block for developers in Florida.
Insurance rates have become so expensive in Florida that the State Government called a special session last year, in part, to deal with the problem. The state government voted to put the screws on errant contractors and limit the ability of policyholders to sue insurance companies in a bid to keep competition in the market.
Several national insurance underwriters have pulled out of the state altogether, citing risk. Insurance costs became exorbitant for a multimillion-dollar project like an apartment complex. The high insurance cost was part of the calculus that informed the trio they should build homes. While they are less profitable for the builder and less affordable for the renter, they are easier to insure.
In short, it’s next to impossible to get a good deal on home insurance in Florida – as prices are triple the national average. Finding an economically feasible policy on apartment buildings is even more complex, so developers like Sjoberg have to use the next-best option for affordable housing: starter homes for rent.
Plenty of factors are to blame regarding the housing shortage, attainable or otherwise, in the city of Niceville. The last couple of years have seen more and more people moving to Florida in general and Niceville in particular. In 2000, the town of Niceville had a little over 11,000 residents, and in total, Valparaiso had about 6,000. According to the 2020 census, both cities counted roughly 20,000 people – a 25% increase. A 3,500-home development in Niceville at Deer Moss Creek, where homes cost between $675,000 and $1 Million, will bring in an estimated 10,000 people to the area. Homes will be built, but not homes most current residents, or most people in the military, can afford. Just five years ago, smaller homes in the same neighborhood sold for $440,000 – a 40% increase in the price of a home.
In the meantime – Niceville and Valparaiso continue to experience a phenomenon unique to the area – caused by the Air Force’s pilot retention crisis. According to local realtor Tracy Jennette, many pilots who separate from the Air Force after a tour at Eglin stay in the area. She’d know because her husband is one of them. “It’s higher than 50 or 60 percent [of pilots who stay in the area after they seperate],” Jennette said. Pilots who moved to the area in 2018-2020 bought a home at a very low rate in a district with great schools for their kids with the lowest crime rates in the state. So, they commute to Dallas, Charlotte, or Atlanta on a shuttle flight for their three to four-day workweeks and return to homes with historically low mortgages, with kids in great schools in a place with little to no crime.
Newcomers must find more expensive housing for the same size and quality home on a smaller salary.
Pilots, in particular, and Air Force Personnel, in general, are not at all the only people who are experiencing this phenomenon – but they do illustrate the situation the best: Many people buy homes and decide to stay, while the Air Force must eventually continue to move people to and fro in order to meet its workforce requirements.
However, the shortage of homes had some relief this past summer – the Air Force decided not to move people around this year. The decision flatlined prices a little bit, according to Steve Schutt with Movement Mortgage. “We knew it before they even put it in writing, because we weren’t talking to [potential customers] that had orders to come here,” Schutt said, “and for a few months it felt like [business] came to a screeching halt. People were just not coming.”
The continued, if slower, movement of people into the area for service at Eglin Air Force Base, the rise in interest rates, high insurance costs for apartment buildings, and the decisions of many retirees not to leave the area have created a perfect storm which means a short supply entry-level places to live in Niceville and Valparaiso.
Additionally, the increase in loan rates for homes means that people who bought entry-level housing just a couple of years ago won’t be upgrading to a bigger house any time soon – the increase in monthly mortgage costs just isn’t worth it.
“People were not deciding to upgrade and move out of Magnolia Woods to buy a new construction in Deer Moss Creek,” said lender Steve Schutt, “their family is getting bigger, they want a nicer or bigger house, but they just are not moving because they don’t want to leave their three percent [mortgage] rate to take on a six-and-a-half percent rate on a more expensive home.”
What does entry-level, attainable housing cost in the Niceville market nowadays? According to realtor Tracy Jennette, the least expensive places in the Niceville area are Cedar, north of State Route 20, and the new Huff Homes behind Jim and Nicks. Both of those areas rent for approximately $1,800 per month.
While smaller builders and developers like Sjoberg, Cabaniss, and Rosenbleeth have put their money where their mouth is on building affordable housing – they don’t believe what they are doing will be enough to fix the situation in the area. That change can only be made by people with deeper pockets than them.
But there are plenty of interests besides the locals who already live here who have a stake in the area’s housing inventory increase. Several days after he changed over command to General Jeffrey Geraghty, General Scott Cain wrote a memorandum to the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners that outlined how the shortage in attainable housing has hurt Eglin’s ability to achieve its missions. The 7th Special Forces Group has given notice of the same issues as well.
That’s where Commissioner Paul Mixon Comes in. Commissioner Mixon, a former sheriff’s deputy with a friendly smile and calm demeanor, grew up in Fort Walton Beach and now serves as a pastor at a Baptist Church in Crestview.
But under his quiet gregariousness lies a desire to multiply the amount of attainable housing in Okaloosa County.
While most of his commission district lies in the northeastern portion of Okaloosa County – it also includes the land to the north of College Boulevard – all Eglin Range land, with the exception of Northwest Florida State College and the Niceville Mullet Festival Grounds. It just so happens there is a piece of land cut off from the rest of the range by Spence Parkway that would be perfect for a new housing development. A total of more than 1.57 square miles, the single parcel surrounds the state college on three sides – though that includes the mullet festival site and a lake. The portion Mixon has in mind would sit in between the Mullet Festival Grounds and Northwest Florida State College, where a portion of the Eglin Golf Course currently sits.
“Currently, we have a lot of custom homes, we have a lot of very nice homes, but we’ve got to figure out a way to keep the costs down to where it is attainable to the average worker in Okaloosa County,” Mixon said of developing the site in Niceville.
Mixon wants to use at least a portion of this parcel to build affordable, not attainable, housing in the Niceville area. The homes, between 1200-2500, depending on how much land is available, would be sold to those living there.
The residences would have a couple of rules attached to them should the Air Force decide to hand over the land for development. First, the homes would have to have some units set aside for military personnel to live in. There would also be a set aside for what Mixon calls ‘essential personnel,’ think teachers, police, and fire personnel. Second, those residences would have re-sale rules. People who wanted to buy the homes would have to work as civil servants on base, in the military, or in those ‘essential personnel’ roles alluded to earlier. “We want to make sure we continue to solve the problem that we stepped in to solve,” Mixon said about the sale restrictions.
The whole process took Commissioner Mixon and County Administrator John Hofstad to Washington, D.C., once already. It will likely require a return trip to thank the various House and Senate members who are advocating for the plan on Capitol Hill. The idea to clip off the orphaned property has made it into the House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act, with some help from Congressman Matt Gaetz. Still, it needs to make it through the Senate and get a signature from President Joe Biden before it can move forward.
Once D.C. has signed off on the transfer, the Air Force would relinquish the land to a local government (either the city or the county), which would then put the whole parcel or subparcels out to bid to developers for construction. The government entity putting the land up for sale would have to require in the sale documents the job descriptions of the buyers.
From there, the homes would be built, possibly in community style, and buyers would be able to line up loans to purchase them.
As of right now – Commissioner Mixon isn’t sure what the final prices would be, but mentioned that the monthly payments could be somewhere in the $1,800 to $2,000 range, based on current market conditions in the city of Niceville and the surrounding areas. According to this mortgage calculator, homes between $290,000 and $320,000 would fit the bill. That, of course, is based on nothing changing over the next couple of years – which we all know is not possible.
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