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Florida’s housing crisis: It’s time for innovation

Megan Holmes

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Florida has an affordable housing crisis.

According to the Florida Housing Coalition, close to 1 million Florida households spend 50% or more of their income on housing. In major cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Naples, Florida Housing Coalition says families must earn more than $22 an hour to afford average rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Home ownership rates sit at an all-time low, homelessness rates at an all time high, and wages remain stubbornly stagnant for Florida’s workers. The problem is undeniable. But the solution is complicated.

Lawmakers knew this issue would come to a head many years ago. In fact, they saw it coming from miles away – and with their powerful intuition, they created the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 1992. Funded by a mandatory documentary stamp tax paid on all real estate transactions, this fund grosses a few hundred million dollars a year, and funds two major state programs for affordable housing. The Trust Fund allocates 70 percent of its funds toward the SHIP program (which provides money to local governments to create and preserve affordable housing). The rest of the funds go to the State Housing Trust Fund.

Despite the Sadowski’s “trust fund” status, the money gathered for this fund has been systematically reappropriated for special interests and general budget funding well outside of the scope of its intentions. Since 2003 (the first time the fund was dipped into, during the Jeb Bush administration), nearly $2 billion has been “swept” from this fund to fill holes in other areas of the state budget. In fact, the practice is so common at this point, the Sadowski fund is treated as a quasi slush fund for Florida lawmakers to use at their discretion.

Naturally, journalists around Florida have been covering the story, leading to outrage among affordable housing advocates throughout the state. According to the Sadowski Coalition, if the programs were fully funded, there would be 241 additional housing units built in Pasco County (Senator Corcoran’s district) and 1,908 in Miami-Dade (Senator Trujillo’s district) alone. If these numbers are taken to state-level, a potential 12,657 homes could be built, housing an estimated 92,881 people.

But the rosy image painted by the Sadowski Coalition is not necessarily shared by all. While Democrats in the House and Senate are fighting to pass a bill to keep Sadowski funds entirely allocated to affordable housing, Republicans have reservations. According to the Miami Herald, despite the negative press that the sweeping of these funds is gathering, many legislators (including Senator Trujillo of Miami and Senator Brandes of St. Petersburg) argue that the current affording housing programs could not absorb the additional funds anyway.

Separately, Senator Brandes argues that the model used to develop affordable housing is unsustainable, as building costs are sky-rocketing at the same time that land prices are increasing. Despite the so-called “ransacking” of these funds by legislators, the untold truth may be that the current infrastructure built by state and local government programs is simply not enough to solve the affordable housing problem.

And the crisis is only projected to get worse. This fact has become undeniable in recent months, especially following the influx of residents from the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico as a result of the destruction of Hurricane Irma. In the coming months, FEMA funds are set to expire for Puerto Ricans living in hotels and motels following the hurricane. Soon, they will have to find new places to live, possibly setting up an already strapped system to breakdown entirely.

As with many of the state’s social programs, now is the time for innovation, or at least for education. The state has numerous avenues to learn and innovate, from business perspectives to nonprofit perspectives and best practices throughout the country. Habitat Pinellas is partially funded by affordable housing dollars, but they’re an example of a business model that does a lot with very little. As the second largest Habitat affiliate in the country, Habitat Pinellas is a model for affordable housing done well. Just in the last year, Habitat Pinellas has taken it upon themselves to reduce costs and innovate their own practices to make building and remodeling homes more affordable. They have taken into consideration costs of building homes with different roofing pitches, flooring materials, or moving laundry facilities to different areas of the home. They’ve also taken advantage of opportunities for multifamily housing and toyed with popular models for cost-saving, such as tiny homes. It’s time for the state and local affordable housing mechanisms to innovate too, and to reward those they fund for cost-saving and innovative techniques. Florida would do well to learn a thing or two from Habitat for Humanity Pinellas.

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