Rents are soaring across Florida and the Tampa Bay area, hitting low-income households the hardest. The state has a dedicated fund to develop affordable workforce housing, but leaders in Tallahassee treat it like a piggy bank and raid it at will. The Legislature will be challenged to balance the state budget on lean revenues, but it should recognize the housing shortage as an urgent need that can’t be ignored.
The William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund is supported by documentary stamp taxes on real estate sales. The money, some $292 million this year alone, is supposed to be used to leverage private and federal funding to support state and local housing programs. But lawmakers have skimmed millions from the fund every year since the recession and redirected the money.
Their timing is terrible. During the economic recovery, housing prices have skyrocketed as homeownership rates remain low. That has driven up the demand for apartments and pushed rent levels ever higher.
Rents are rising faster in Tampa Bay than elsewhere in Florida. Wages and incomes are not seeing the same rise, and communities are not keeping up with the need for more affordable housing stock. About 1 million low-income Floridians spend more than half their income on rent — a situation that makes saving money to buy a house and build wealth nearly impossible. Minorities are hit the hardest.
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In Manatee County, officials are only beginning to recognize the severity of the problem. Based on recommendations from the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, Manatee County commissioners appear ready to approve a workforce housing rental incentive program. Developers could receive up to $500,000 per project if they develop affordable units in the Urban Service Area, which is designated in neighborhoods in unincorporated Bradenton. The county would pay up to 100 percent of impact fees and facility investment fees for utilities for the affordable units.
This proposal is one of four priorities the committee has identified for Manatee County:
▪ Establish multi-family housing around employment centers and tax incentives
▪ Develop a fee on non-affordable development projects that goes toward affordable housing
▪ Develop impact fee incentives for multi-family units that are similar to single-family affordable home incentives
▪ Add a housing expeditor staff person
We encourage the commission to act quickly and approve the incentives program, at the same time establishing strong oversight of both the approval process and the ongoing commitment of the developers and landlords to maintain safe, affordable and livable housing.
But those all involve limited local funding. Of the $1.87 billion collected in the Sadowski trust fund since 2009, lawmakers diverted nearly $1.3 billion to other purposes. This year is shaping up no differently.
The Senate’s proposed budget steers nearly $130 million in trust fund dollars to the general fund. The House’s proposed budget would rob the fund of nearly $248 million. That’s money that could be providing low-interest loans to developers of moderately priced housing complexes. Or lawmakers could steer the trust fund money to home-buying assistance programs such as the State Housing Initiatives Partnership that help lift people out of poverty and stabilize neighborhoods.
But to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the trust fund is too generous, helping not just bona fide poor people but also those who “struggle to afford adequate housing but … are fully salaried and employed.” That’s another phrase for the workforce, who also need a place to live.
Florida has an affordable housing crisis, whether state lawmakers acknowledge it or not. Rents are historically high in the Tampa Bay area, and real estate developers are largely focused on the high end of the market.
That makes the state’s affordable housing trust fund a crucial tool to ensure a safe, adequate housing supply for lower-income residents. The Legislature needs to protect it, not drain it.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.