Former commissioner has offered suggestions to spur policy revisions as the county undergoes an update of its Comprehensive Plan
At the suggestion of a former Sarasota County elected official, the County Commission is seeking volunteers to serve on an Affordable Housing Advisory Committee to help address the community’s critical need for more moderately priced dwellings, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton proposed the idea to County Commission Chair Carolyn Mason after learning that Manatee County was organizing such a group, he told the News Leader in a Nov. 23 interview. His proposal was for Sarasota County to bring together entrepreneurs; representatives of real estate and development firms and philanthropic foundations; and people involved in financing community housing programs to review policies in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Their goal, Thaxton added, should be to answer the question, “What would it take to make those policies work?”
As senior vice president for community investment for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF), Thaxton has been working on initiatives to help the homeless in the community and to ensure expanded availability of affordable housing.
In September, the GCCF released the 2015 report of the Florida Housing Coalition, which said more than 18,400 “very low-income households” in Sarasota County — including those with “hardworking families, seniors and people with disabilities” — pay more than 50 percent of their incomes for housing. It also pointed out, “Sarasota County’s economy is dominated by low-wage jobs, particularly in the service industry. In many occupations,” it continued, “workers do not earn enough to rent a modest apartment or buy their first home.”
The county demand for low-wage jobs continues to grow, Thaxton said in the News Leader interview, and that results in “families diverting far too much income to housing.” As they struggle to pay rent or mortgages, he added, they often have no money left for adequate health and dental care, nutritious meals, or transportation so they can get to work easily or drive their children to activities. “It’s just a vicious cycle.”
His focus on the county’s current affordable housing practices came after he attended a public meeting on the fifth update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, he pointed out.
An October report county administrative staff issued on that undertaking says more than 45 such sessions have been offered since the project began in February of this year. The goal is to adopt a revised Comprehensive Plan by October 2016, the report adds.
A meeting and a board report
During the meeting he attended on the Comprehensive Plan update, Thaxton pointed out, county staff members passed out copies of policies related to affordable housing. As he reviewed them, he found himself thinking, “They actually look pretty darn good,” he told the News Leader, adding that they “appeared to have the right goals.”
His question, though, was how well the policies were working. On Sept. 2, he sent a detailed email to Chair Mason. Among other points, he wrote that one of the greatest challenges facing the partnership between the county and local nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to homeless children and families “is finding adequate housing for those families with incomes at or below the 120 percentile of Area Mean Income (AMI).” He added that after his review of housing policies in the Comprehensive Plan, “I felt reassured that [they] are written in a way that could provide the necessary impetus and framework” to achieve the goal of providing an adequate housing supply to meet the projected demand.
He also discussed the issue with Commissioner Christine Robinson, she told the News Leader. On Sept. 21, she requested that staff evaluate the policies. On Oct. 19, with sign-offs from County Administrator Tom Harmer, Planning and Development Services Director Tom Polk and Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons, the document was delivered to the board members. It notes that staff used “the best available data” since the last update of the Comprehensive Plan, which occurred in 2006.
The policies and the facts
The very first policy the report references is 1.1.7: “Identify land use changes that can maximize Affordable and Workforce housing opportunities. Consider appropriate sites for higher densities, greater heights and infill development along transportation corridors.”
The document lists four projects:
- Palmer Place, the focus of an Affordable Housing Overlay adopted in 2007. Modified in 2015, the plan calls for 100 workforce units, but none has been constructed.
- The Village of Lakewood Ranch South, a 2050 Plan village, approved in 2010 and modified in 2014, was designed to provide 2,037 workforce units. None has been constructed.
- Fruitville Road Properties, another 2050 village. Approved in 2015, it will provide 135 workforce units. No construction has commenced.
- The Springs at Bee Ridge, which won rezoning approval in 2006. It will provide 41 workforce units. None has been constructed.
The second policy, 1.1.9, calls for the county to “Plan, coordinate and support community based initiatives that develop responsible plans to provide housing opportunities for households whose needs are not met by the private for-profit market.”
It lists eight efforts that have created dwelling places. Among them are the Sarasota Housing Authority’s Janie’s Garden in Newtown (154 units); the Venice Housing Authority’s Venetian Walk (61 units), and 39 single-family homes provided through the Community Housing Trust.
Another example from the Comprehensive Plan, Objective 1.2, calls for increasing the supply of affordable housing “for extremely low, very low, low and moderate-income future and existing residents.” County staff divided the numbers of units constructed since 2006 into three categories pegged to the 2015 Area Median Income (AMI) for a family of four. (According to county staff, 100 percent of AMI for a family of four in the Sarasota/Bradenton/North Port Metropolitan Statistical Area as of mid-July was $60,700.)
The results of that research follow:
- 125 units have been created for residents with very low incomes (30 to 50 percent of the AMI). The sales prices ranged from $37,314 to $110,257.
- 1,746 units have been provided for low-income residents (50 to 80 percent of the AMI). The sales prices were between $110,258 and $219,614.
- 1,661 units have been built for residents with moderate incomes (80 to 100 percent of AMI). The sales prices for those ranged from $219,615 to $292,619.
Yet another policy — 1.2.9 — calls for creating “more fully integrated neighborhoods through the development or redevelopment of mixed income and affordable in-fill housing and through the placement of Affordable housing units in neighborhoods that do not already have high levels of low-income housing.” No such neighborhoods can be identified, the report says.
Altogether, the board report addressed 17 policies and one objective in the Comprehensive Plan’s Housing Chapter.
Engaging community members
“Usually, governments don’t shine the spotlight on themselves,” Thaxton pointed out in the Nov. 23 interview with the News Leader. That is all the more reason, he said, that he gives the County Commission “a lot of credit” for looking at ways to improve the availability of affordable housing in the community.
In regard to the Oct. 19 board report itself, he continued, “I think, by and large, it’s pretty safe to say that the policies need some sort of initiative to activate them. They’re great as written.”
He added, “I think that the only way that we’re going to be able to get our arms around the affordable housing challenge … is to engage many facets of the community.”
And that is why he proposed the establishment of the committee whose members the county is seeking.
On Nov. 23, county spokesman Jason Bartolone provided the News Leader with the text of the notice about the committee, courtesy of Planning Division Manager Parsons. The notice is on the county’s advisory board weekly calendar:
SHIP [State Housing Initiatives Partnership] Program Affordable Housing Advisory Committee
Application Closing Date: Open Until Filled
Vacancies: 11: One representative actively engaged in each of the following areas/industries and with a connection to affordable housing: Residential home building; banking or mortgage; construction/labor; low-income advocate; for-profit housing provider; not-for-profit housing provider; real estate professional; local planning agency member; citizen at large; business/employer representative; essential services personnel representative (as defined in the Local Housing Assistance Plan).
Purpose: To review established policies and procedures, ordinances, land development regulations, and adopted comprehensive plan and recommend specific actions or initiatives to encourage or facilitate affordable housing while protecting the ability of the property to appreciate in value.
Term: Three years with staggered terms on initial appointment.
Meetings: As needed at the Federal Building, 111 South Orange Avenue, Sarasota.
Information: Housing and Community Development, Don Hadsell, 941-951-3608
Along with the search for committee members, Commissioner Robinson told the News Leader she has asked representatives of the municipalities to provide the county with copies of their affordable housing requirements. She took the opportunity to do that, she added, when she filled in for Chair Mason at a recent Sarasota County Council of Governments meeting
“I said we would gather the [city policies] together [with those of the county]. It would be helpful to us to compare notes, to see if somebody has a better idea” about how to encourage the development of more affordable housing in the county, she told the News Leader.
The Oct. 19 board report also notes that the Sarasota Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) is preparing the new Consolidated Plan for the city and county, and it will include an examination of housing needs for the period of 2016-21. (See the related story in this issue.)
With those efforts under way, Thaxton is optimistic the new county committee will offer valuable contributions to the process, he told the News Leader, though he cautions that coming up with solutions will take time.
“I think people need to be patient,” he said. “What takes decades to create is not curative in months.”