Affordable living in Destin? Locals share their experiences

Savannah Vasquez

Can the “average” person afford to live in Destin?

As an area where the majority of employers are in the hospitality and retail sectors, it has been widely speculated that those who work full time in Destin may not actually be able to afford to live in the city where they work.

“The problem is that a minimum wage worker or someone making under $30,000 a year cannot live in Destin and that’s where our working force is coming from,” said City Councilman Cyron Marler. “Unless it’s a two income family and then it’s a barely scraping by situation.”

According to information from the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, the average “retail salesperson” earns $10.13 per hour, while a “waiter and waitress” earns $8.74 hourly when you account for tips. Census data shows that the median household income (from 2009-2013) is $63,750 for the area.

“The median according to the EDC, is saying that we have to have a higher income for Destin but I don’t see it that way, because you have restaurant people, maintenance people and house keepers and they have to have a place to live, but they just can’t afford it,” said Marler.

After searching through rental listings in Destin, one would be hard pressed to find a one-bedroom unit for less than $900 a month, which would equate to roughly $10,800 annually. For a two-bedroom apartment or condo in Destin, one would be setback between $1,100-$1,300 a month ($15,600 annually on the high end), based on the average rental prices for apartments, townhouses and condos. The basic rule-of-thumb for house budgeting follows that rent or mortgage payments should only equate for 25 percent of a household’s monthly income. That being said, with the average rate of apartments set at $1,100, a livable income in Destin would be a minimum of $53,000 a year.

“You have people that would love to live in Destin but its just so expensive,” said Marler. “Cost of rent is between $1,500 and $2,000 and unless you make $30,000 or more a year, even then it’s just impossible. Affordable housing to me is that your worker bees shouldn’t have to drive 30-40 minutes to get to work. We’ve got to have a certain amount of housing that is affordable to rent.”

To delve deeper into the topic of Destin’s average wage and housing prices, The Log posed the question to its Facebook audience, and was met with a range of answers from residents in all spectrums of the workforce.

Lauren Morton has lived in Destin on and off for the past 13 years and said she and her husband both worked in the restaurant business.

“There is no way to move forward in a location where you work to survive,” she posted on The Log’s page. “Forget saving. My husband and I make more than the average Joe, but we are lucky he is on salary.”

Today, Morton is finishing up a pre-law degree and says she is hoping that upon graduating she and her family can move to find a place where the stress of working doesn’t interfere with the joys of living.

“We still want to move to a lower rent area to save more. We have a son who just turned one in October and want to save as much as possible, so when I complete my college degree, we are able to move to a place that makes more sense to raise a family. Not everyone wants to depend on other people to survive,” she added. “The only way that makes sense out here is to shack up with people and without doing that, you will never get out of an endless cycle of working to survive.”

Kevin Schmidt, a 24-year Destin resident had a different take on the local marketplace.

“I’m a teacher. One salary household. Two children. We budget and we live in Destin,” he posted to Facebook. “We have fun and pay the bills each month.”

Schmidt told The Log he believes that prices are fair and wages are accurate for the area and the economy.

“I think there are many options for people across all income levels to live in Destin,” he said. “You can live in a nice apartment/house for $1,000 a month including insurance/taxes. So, even if you are making $25,000, you can make it work based on how you live your life each day and the things that you own and buy. I think wage levels are competitive and fair.”

For some, the costs of living outweigh the benefits in Destin. Callan Edick and her husband moved to Destin a few years ago. She works in the hospitality industry and her husband is active duty military. However, Edick said after one year, the cost of living did not seem plausible for a comfortable home lifestyle.

“Although we loved being close to family, we got to the point where we felt like we were throwing money away,” she posted on the web. “We ended up buying a larger home with a pool in Navarre, just a mile from the beach and we’re paying less each month for our mortgage than our rent in Destin.”

Edick told The Log that she believes the cost of housing in Destin is outrageous given the city’s size and the nearby area’s property pricing.

“I think the property values are inflated,” she said. “Condos, that’s one thing, but when you are further in, it’s a small town but the prices don’t reflect that. It’s sad, my dream was to always live in Destin but reality is different. We would have loved to stay in that community but it just wasn’t smart to do so.”

In 2005, the city sought to address the affordable housing issue by launching a committee focused on finding a solution.

“At one time we had a committee for affordable housing and we based in on Pitkon County, in  Aspen, Colorado,” said Marler. The councilman explained that Pitkon County had a functioning model in which even the mayor of the city resided in affordable housing.

“The problem is getting land,” Marler said. “We were hoping that the city might be able to work with the committee to use excess land from the cross town connector, depending on how the road was planned from Legion to Benning. There were several other ideas, but all included either donated land or housing projects voluntarily coming on board as an affordable living complex.”

Marler said that although the committee broke from the city to form a 501-3c non-profit organization, the project has been on a holding pattern since 2011.

When asked if the issue is an interest with the current city leaders, City Manager Greg Kisela replied that it has not been brought us since his return in August.

“Even back in ‘05 it was a very hotly contested issue. We had some that were interested in the projects and some who believed equally as strong that we should let the private sector do what the private sector does,” he said. “It was a challenge back in ’05, and as the market slowly recovers it will be a challenge today.”

As for the 501-3c, Marler said the group still has an active license, and he hopes to see affordable housing come back to the limelight for Destin.

 “We didn’t really disband but didn’t have anything to do,” he said of the group. “The problem is that we put it on the back burner, but I would like to see more affordable housing. I live in Destin because I was born and raised here and this is my home. This is where I want to live and a lot of people born and raised here can’t afford to live here anymore and that’s the problem.”