Event possibly will be held in late August
A question Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio posed during the board’s June 19 budget workshop led to a reprise of his and his colleagues’ frustrations about the lack of proposals for affordable housing developments in the community.
After close to 40 minutes of discussion, the board members agreed that they wanted staff to organize a formal workshop on the issue. As Commissioner Nancy Detert put it, that event should include “experts in the affordable housing field who live here,” as well as representatives of the Office of Housing and Community Development, which the county and the City of Sarasota jointly fund.
“I’d like to hear from developers who specialize in this and have had some success,” Detert told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, as well as those who are willing to propose “very creative, novel ideas” about affordable housing. “We want something to come out of here with workable and useful information,” she said.
Chair Charles Hines suggested holding the workshop in August or September. Lewis pointed out that the final budget workshop for the board is scheduled for Aug. 21. If the commissioners were comfortable enough with their progress on crafting the 2020 fiscal year budget, Lewis continued, staff could try to schedule the workshop for the same day.
“Absolutely,” Hines told him.
During the commission’s regular meeting on June 4, Hines talked of the potential, for example, of selling county surplus land in an agreement with a developer for an affordable housing project. He also referenced an analysis and recommendations that the city and county paid the Florida Housing Coalition to undertake last year. The resulting report, titled Blueprint for Workforce Housing, included a suggestion that the county hire an ombudsman whose sole assignment would be to try to facilitate affordable housing projects, Hines pointed out.
On June 19, as Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, was presenting his proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Maio addressed Osterhoudt: “Did we ask you formally to begin the process of investigating small-scale redevelopment of strip centers?”
Maio noted that the commission has changed county regulations — offering doubled density through use of 750-square-foot and smaller units, requiring fewer parking spaces for smaller apartments and condominiums, and lowering impact and capacity fees — to try to make affordable housing projects less expensive and more enticing to developers.
He could not recall, Maio indicated, whether the board ever had directed staff to work on a proposal for new regulations that would construction of one or two floors above older strip centers with up to 10 or 14 storefronts, to provide workforce housing.
“At this time,” Osterhoudt responded, “we haven’t received formal guidance on it.” However, Osterhoudt added, if the board wanted staff to begin such an initiative, staff would do so.
Maio then elaborated on his vision regarding strip centers with ground-level storefronts, which, he indicated, typically are 20 feet by 50 feet. “They could be as old as 40 years,” he said of the centers. Although he had heard some concerns about parking, Maio continued, he pointed to the possibility that residents of the dwelling units would be away during the day at their jobs while the stores or offices would need the parking spaces. Therefore, no conflict might arise over the spaces.
“Can I get buy-in from you all at least to begin the look at that?” he asked his colleagues.
Maio added that he was talking about “the more urban parts of our county. That’s how we achieve growth at no cost to us.”
“It’s not my favorite topic,” Detert responded. “You’ve talked about it so much … that I’ve heard people say we’re trying to turn [Westfield Sarasota Square] mall into affordable housing.”
“This was not to tear down Sarasota Square Mall and make it affordable housing,” Maio told her. A developer could create from 10 to 150 small units above old storefronts, he continued, noting that he was thinking of dwellings with no more than 1,000 square feet.
Then Detert proposed the workshop. “I think we need some clarity.” If Maio was just talking about older strip centers in the urban areas, she continued, “It’s really kind of a quaint, cute, attractive living facility for somebody,” especially Millennials.
“Instead of doing this piece by piece,” Detert said, “let’s just do a workshop and put everything on the table that’s not there and also put on the table what’s stopping us [from spurring affordable housing projects].”
“I’m fine with all of that,” Maio replied.
Hines then voiced his frustration about the fact that affordable housing has been a top priority for the commission for the past three years; yet, “We’ve got none …”
“I’ve been saying for two years you need some help,” Hines told Osterhoudt, given all the demands on the Planning and Development Department staff. That was why he found the proposal for the ombudsman to be a good one, Hines said. “Not someone from staff that spends an hour today, two hours next week [on the issue, for example]. There’s no one here driving the bus on our staff. … That’s our fault.”
Hines added, “If we need to do a workshop and be specific and tell you to hire somebody … I guess we have to do that!”
Further ideas on housing and workshop format
Detert also proposed representation from the Office of Housing and Community Development at the workshop, so the board members could find out how federal and state money has been used for affordable housing in recent years. “What are we spending it on? … That puzzle needs to be brought together.”
Hines told his colleagues he recently had talked with Don Hadsell, who is retiring as director of the Office of Housing and Community Development. Most of the federal money for affordable housing, Hines continued, is being directed to elderly residents for rehabilitation of their homes so they can stay in their residences, based on what Hadsell told him. Not enough federal money is left over for affordable housing projects, Hines added.
Further, Hines said, he had asked a friend who is a Realtor to search through county databases to determine how many single-family homes are available for $130,000 or less. The answer was 250, Hines pointed out. “I sure as heck thought it was going to be higher than that.”
However, Hines said, when he told Hadsell the number, Hadsell’s response was that “he thought that was even high.”
“The workshop brings all this together, so we can make a decision,” Hines added.
Commissioner Michael Moran did tell his colleagues that he was not in favor of providing taxpayer money as a subsidy to a developer to create an affordable housing project.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred with that. “I do not want to get in the business of the government handing out subsidies. I think the private sector needs to take the lead on this.”
“If it takes us selling the land at a discount,” Hines told his colleagues, he would be in favor of that for a project, as long as the homes would remain affordable.
Ziegler added that he would like to see examples of affordable housing projects that have been created in other communities, and he also wanted to discuss how county staff could improve its interaction with developers.
Osterhoudt responded that an employee among his staff members works to facilitate the planning process with developers; adjustments are made in that process based on comments the person hears.
“I think that’s valuable information,” Ziegler replied.
Then, in discussing the potential format for the workshop, County Administrator Lewis asked whether the board members wanted to model it after the late February session on parking and traffic issues related to Siesta Key. For that event, members of the public were allowed to present their comments to the commissioners, with each of them restricted to 3 minutes.
“We don’t need 100 people at Open to the Public for 3 minutes, giving their personal opinion,” Hines told Lewis, referring to the public comment segments of regular board meetings.
Maio suggested inviting developers with project ideas and giving each of them 10 minutes. However, Maio cautioned, “I will be the first one to remind them this is not a gripe session.”
In the meantime, Lewis said, he would provide copies again to the commissioners of an in-depth staff report on affordable housing that was produced in 2017. It was crafted after extensive discussions with members of the community who are involved in construction and others engaged in affordable housing issues.