750-square-foot homes to be allowed in multi-family zoning districts, with doubled density called an incentive to developers to create affordable housing projects

Speakers at County Commission hearing argue that board needs to take steps to ensure affordable housing remains affordable in perpetuity and to create special districts for such housing

Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

With Commissioner Alan Maio pointing out that it was the sixth action the Sarasota County Commission has taken to try to encourage development of more affordable housing units in the county, the board this week unanimously approved provisions for 750-square-foot homes.

The formal amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code of land and zoning regulations will allow the half dwelling units to be constructed in districts where multi-family structures already are allowed. Among those are the Commercial General (CG), Commercial Intensive (CI), and Office, Professional, and Institutional (OPI) districts, Jane Grogg, a manager and planner in the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained during a March 13 presentation. The smaller units will not be permitted in areas zoned for single-family residences, she added.

Additionally, the 750-square-foot homes would not be allowed on the barrier islands, and they cannot be used for transient accommodations, according to the amendment.

“The intent of the [county] code change is to provide more [homes] for our residents, the people who live here and work here,” Grogg said.

The goal is to create another incentive for a developer to provide affordable housing in areas within the county’s Urban Service Boundary that already are along commercial corridors. That way, Grogg pointed out, residents of the smaller homes would be closer to employers, services and transit options.

Maio, especially, has talked of the need for more housing that would be affordable to firefighters, police officers, teachers and dental hygienists, for examples.

One of the champions of the amendment, Maio pointed out that the commission has no means of controlling the cost of land for new construction. What it has done, he continued, is lower mobility and impact fees, as well as the expense for county water and wastewater hookups, for smaller dwelling units, to serve as incentives to developers to construct affordable housing projects.

The board also reduced the parking space requirement from two to one for smaller units, Maio noted. That vote came in January 2018.

A graphic provides a timeline reflecting County Commission action on affordable housing issues. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Originally, Maio noted, the board was focused on 900-square-foot dwellings, but staff members met with the commissioners one-on-one to argue that 750 square feet would be more appropriate. With 900 square feet available, he said, a developer might create two-bedroom dwelling units.

Two other measures are in the works to foster affordable housing construction, Maio also pointed out on March 13. The first is focused on redevelopment opportunities in regard to outdated strip shopping centers, where smaller apartments or condominiums could be constructed above the retail/office spaces.

The second one involves construction of accessory dwelling units in zoning districts for single-family homes, he said.

A different approach urged

This is an example of a half dwelling unit, as presented to the County Commission in May 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Two of the six speakers who addressed the board during the March 13 public hearing argued against approval of the amendment involving 750-square-foot homes.

Sura Kochman, a Pine Shores Estates resident, acknowledged that the commissioners were “trying to address the dearth of affordable housing here in Sarasota County.” She told the board members, “Your current affordable housing regulations definitely need to be revamped,” but the code change she sought was for housing built to be affordable to remain so in perpetuity.

The existing regulations, she stressed, require affordable homes in projects to remain affordable for only five years. “They revert to market rate” after that term ends, she pointed out. “This is perpetuating the need for affordable housing over and over and over again.”

Kochman suggested the board members amend the county code to call for awarding 20% density bonuses to developers who will keep dwelling units affordable in perpetuity.

Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of the nonprofit organization Control Growth Now, stressed, “Increased density doesn’t create affordability.” Yet, he pointed out, the impetus for the creation of the amendment under consideration that day was to spur more construction of affordable homes.

“There has to be an affordable requirement attached to this,” he continued. “Consider doing something that’s good for the public for a change that the developers don’t necessarily endorse.”

Without a requirement for the homes to remain affordable built into the amendment, Lobeck added, developers will build the smaller units and sell them at market rate.

Dan Lobeck. File photo

He also urged the commissioners to implement a change in the county code specifying “locational criteria” for the tiny homes, instead of allowing for density to double from 13 units per acre to 26 units per acre in some of the zoning districts where the 750-square-foot homes will be permitted.

The Sarasota City Commission tried to create an incentive for affordable housing by allowing for projects with higher density, he pointed out. Instead, resulting apartments and condominiums are renting for $3,500 a month and selling for about half a million dollars.

“This is way too broad a brush,” Lobeck added of the proposed amendment. “Sarasota County is not a sardine can, and you should stop treating it as such.”

A third speaker, developer Michael Miller of Venice, praised the commissioners for taking steps to encourage construction of affordable housing. However, he joked that they probably would find this shocking, “But I’m not as big a promoter of density as some. I think things can be done in a different way.”

Concern about ‘loopholes’

One developer who addressed the board — Bill Rowland of Nokomis — called for commission action to allow for “averaging” of square footage in new projects with smaller homes.

Maio had noted earlier that he and his colleagues had been receiving emails from people interested in a county measure to allow a developer to construct dwelling units that are 650 square feet, for example. Then, for each apartment or condominium not as large as 750 square feet, the square footage left over, in a manner of speaking, could be added to other units. That way, the developer could have a mix of small and large homes, Maio explained.

This slide shows the zoning districts where the half dwelling units will be allowed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He was not sure how his colleagues viewed that proposal, Maio continued. However, he asked that if commissioners were interested in it, that it be a topic for consideration at a later time.

If such averaging were to be considered, Grogg responded, then staff would have a related issue to address. Larger dwelling units created from compiling square footage not used in the smaller ones would have to be assessed the higher mobility, impact and utility fees already associated with homes of greater square footage, she pointed out.

When Chair Charles Hines asked Grogg whether the amendment language is clear enough to prevent averaging, Grogg replied that it is.

Commissioner Nancy Detert, who also has been a big proponent of tiny home developments, voiced strong support for the amendment before the board on March 13. She called the 750-square-foot units “great little starter homes,” though she added that she expected the elderly would find them attractive, too.

However, she also referenced people “trying to find a loophole.”

She told Grogg she would like for county Planning and Development Services staff to monitor projects proposed with the 750-square-foot dwelling units to determine whether developers taking advantage of the reduced fees associated with those units also were charging lower rents and marketing the homes for less. “I went to make sure they decrease their prices, too.”

Detert added that she hoped staff would suggest remedies to the commission if staff finds “someone is corrupting the system.”