Bill Lazar is executive director of St. Johns Housing Partnership, a nonprofit creating affordable housing in north Florida. This year marks the organization’s 25th anniversary.

Bill Lazar
Bill Lazar

The Partnership’s work includes a nationally recognized weatherization program, new construction, energy audits, and home repairs for the elderly, disabled, and low-income families.

Last year, Lazar received the Jean Diggs Weatherization Champion Award from the National Association for State Community Service Programs.

What’s on your agenda for 2023?

We kind of spread ourselves thin. That may not be a smart thing, but someone told me a long time ago, “diversify your activities.” That way if the rug gets pulled out from one of them, you’ve still got something else going. We’re probably going to go from building six new single-family homes to 10 or 12. We have three different scattered-site parcels that we’re going to build a duplex or triplex on, rentals that we will keep in our own portfolio. Those are the heavy lifts because we don’t receive subsidies for them. We’re basically trying to use a line of credit to build them and get them stabilized. My hope is that sooner or later we’ll find some financing mechanism to bundle some of them. Our primary business for years has been fixing substandard housing that people on a fixed income own. We’ll work on 100 to 150 homes this year depending on where the funding lines up. The big challenge this year will be the increase in property insurance for our rentals and insurance companies requiring roof replacement for low-income homeowners’ renewal policies.

St. Johns Housing Partnership is celebrating its 25th anniversary. What’s been its secret sauce?

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to hire really talented people. That’s the key to any kind of business, having the right people in the right place. We’ve also always had the attitude of don’t say no to an opportunity. The first multifamily property we bought was back in 2009, and it was a USDA property built in the 1980s. The owner was at the point he was allowed to sell. A friend of mine at Legal Aid called and said you’ve got to buy this property, Southern Villas, even though we didn’t do rental housing at the time. She said, “You have to. If you don’t, there will be 60 seniors who are going to be homeless.” It took us about a year and a half to get it. Around 2013, we were approached by Gorman & Co. who said it wanted to partner with us to rehab the property. We needed it after 30 years. It was the third application when we received the housing tax credits needed to renovate the property.

Are you looking at doing more multifamily housing projects?

We’re in the process of trying to buy three other USDA properties. Two are family properties, and the third is senior housing. Two are in the 25- to 35-unit range, so they’re kind of small for the housing credit program. The other is 60 units. The USDA properties that we work with usually have a small number of units, so they don’t seem to score competitively for housing tax credits unless there are factors. We’re looking at buying these three properties because we don’t want to lose them to the private market, and they are an incredibly valuable asset in these communities. We want to figure out how to preserve them. Somewhere down the road we’ll find funding to upgrade them.

How have hurricanes and natural disasters changed your work?

It’s constantly evolving. The catchword is resiliency. I get involved in all these community conversations and statewide discussions about affordable housing and planning for the future. We’ve got rising sea levels, warming climates. The goal of our weatherization program is to reduce the utility bill on a house, on a very limited rehab budget. People used to be able to turn the AC off at night, and now they don’t. They leave it running. Improving the building envelope and properly sizing the HVAC systems really helps. Hurricane mitigation is a real challenge. For a long time, people kept saying that was a 100-year storm, a 500-year storm. We’ve seen storms that run across the entire state. I think we all have to admit that the 100-year and 500-year analogy doesn’t work anymore. It’s every year. We have to be prepared. The hard part is figuring out what to really do and where the funding comes from to be more resilient. I think the biggest challenge that Florida is facing this year and the next couple of years is the whole crisis with insurance. Our property insurance on our rental properties just went up 300%. To pass that cost on, we would have to raise rents $180 a month per unit. That’s going to hurt our tenants.

How did you get started in affordable housing?

I started back in 1998 with a nonprofit in Jacksonville called Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida (LSS). They had an ad in the paper looking for someone to help make small repairs at the homes of seniors. Volunteers were visiting seniors who lived alone, and they were coming back and saying the faucet wasn’t working or there was a leak under the sink. That led the organization to create a new maintenance position. I was working in construction with a friend when I applied. It paid $7 an hour. I had a budget of $500 a house. Whatever I could do for $500 to make the house better, I would. It could be putting glass in a window that didn’t have glass, getting a door to lock, or fixing a sink, and it grew over time. I also had a background of working as a community organizer, so LSS soon had me speaking about the work we were doing to raise funds and volunteers.

Why have you stayed working in housing?

The future of this country is tied to the workforce being able to live some place. Whether it’s affordable rental or affordable homeownership, there’s so much more work that needs to be done. As much as I love the tax credit program, I think somehow we need a 1% housing program. You can borrow money to buy a house or build a house, and if it’s all at 1% and for people under 120% of the area median income, that would have a huge impact on both affordability and volume. Affordable housing will only succeed when we have government, lenders, and builders/developers each participating. Regulatory relief, lower interest rates, and volume production are the three focal points. If anyone sits out, the success rate plummets.

What do you do when you’re not working?

My wife and I have raised two kids, and they’re both on their own. My oldest son is a cinematographer. My youngest son is a traveling cardiovascular invasive tech. Right now, we have six rescue puppies at our house. A rescue group needed a place to home the puppies until they are old enough to be adopted. My wife is retired, the puppies are a part-time “job” for her all day long. At the end of my day, it’s great stress relief to help out and watch the puppies.