December 6, 2017

FLORIDA — Now that Gov. Rick Scott’s 2018 budget proposes to set aside $230 million for affordable housing, with $20 million dedicated specifically to the Florida Keys, legislators statewide continue to determine the best way to translate that funding into groundbreaking on affordable housing projects.

As people from around the country continue to flock to Florida and property values keep rising, those in the workforce increasingly feel the squeeze. In the Keys, the lack of buildable land adds another layer to the issue, as does the destruction of hundreds of affordable housing units in Hurricane Irma.

The total affordable housing funding available next year would be $322 million, which is the amount generated by a documentary stamp tax on real estate sales established by the Sadowski Act, passed in 1992 to create an affordable housing trust fund. However, swiping money from the trust fund to cover budget shortfalls in other areas has become an annual occurrence, and $92 million is earmarked to be taken from the trust fund next year, though that could change as the budget is debated during next year’s legislative session.

State Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, is co-sponsoring a bill that would prevent any affordable housing money from being swept into the general fund. He says that, like the bulk of communities around the state, affordable housing is a growing concern in his district.

“There are a lot of wonderful, nice apartment complexes being built in my community that no one can really afford,” Shaw said. “I’d love to see a certain percentage of those units having to be dedicated to affordable housing, and more than just one or two — a pretty significant percentage.”

No requirement for a certain percentage of affordable housing to be built as part of new housing projects is included in Shaw’s bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. He and others believe that there is more political will to make progress on affordable housing after Irma, though he acknowledges that getting his bill to the floor could be a heavy lift.

“It’s a bill that everyone agrees with in a vacuum, but I’m not na├»ve; I understand that this is a huge hit to the budget,” Shaw said. “Quite frankly, my position is: I don’t care.”

One way to promote the construction of new affordable housing that has been discussed by those involved with housing issues would be incentives designed to convince builders to undertake projects that they otherwise may balk at.

Other communities have used incentives to promote affordable housing to varying levels of success. In Los Angeles, after voters passed a ballot measure last year partially designed to create affordable housing incentive programs, the city now requires builders applying for certain exemptions they need to either expand current buildings or create new housing structures to also provide a percentage of affordable housing units.

Shaw says that while he would need to study such incentives further, he would be open to the idea if Sadowski Act funds could be used for that purpose.

“I could see myself supporting that,” he said. “I just want to see people who need affordable housing have access to it.”

Bigger cities like Tampa and L.A. and many smaller communities may have similar affordable housing issues, but the Keys is unique in its lack of buildable land and concerns about density with respect to evacuating during hurricane season. So while a density bonus that’s part of the L.A. building incentive program may work there, potential incentive programs here would almost certainly require a different approach.

Member of Islamorada’s Local Planning Agency and local attorney and activist Cheryl Culberson says that the Keys is already dealing with density concerns and can’t take on more. She points to the current housing density and its effect on the effort to evacuate prior to Irma’s landfall.

“We can’t take any more density,” she said. “We proved that in September when we tried to evacuate the Keys.”

Islamorada head of planning Cheryl Cioffari, who did not return a request for comment, said during the most recent LPA meeting that evacuation concerns make it more difficult to add on to current units due to density issues.

She also said recently that, due to the destruction of mobile home parks and other affordable housing in Irma, “the need for affordable housing continues to increase every day.”

Manatee County, which includes Bradenton, took up a discussion about affordable housing building incentives among county commissioners in April. That plan would provide up to $500,000 to builders for affordable housing projects based on a number of requirements, and would be used for single-family homes.

The inclusion of multi-family homes in the plan was also discussed. The commission passed a version of the plan in August, according to a Manatee County official. If that plan proves successful, it could provide other Florida communities with a blueprint for providing affordable housing incentives.

With a perhaps renewed focus on affordable housing statewide after the most destructive hurricane in 57 years, the time may never be better to preserve state affordable housing funding, though Shaw says that much of the issue will require attention from elected officials on a local level.

He also questions those who claim that the affordable housing fund is too large to be absorbed by the housing program, which is cited as a reason the Sadowski Act fund is annually raided.

“It’s very hard for me to take an argument from those who claim to be fiscally responsible and continue to plug holes in the general revenue budget with affordable housing dollars,” Shaw said. “The alarm bells are ringing. We have a crisis, and my argument is that it’s a self-inflicted crisis. To sweep the fund every year on one hand, then on other hand claim that there’s an affordable housing crisis, is a bit hypocritical, a bit peculiar.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com