18 recommendations contained in draft report on affordable housing prepared by Sarasota County staff at direction of County Commission

More flexibility with housing types, creative redevelopment and even educating the public in an effort to overcome negative perceptions of workforce housing among the recommendations

Data included in the survey show details about renters dealing with financial burdens. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Providing for more flexibility in housing types, offering incentives to developers, providing subsidies and other financial assistance, and encouraging redevelopment opportunities are among 18 recommendations in a draft situational report on affordable housing that county staff has provided to the Sarasota County Commission, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

During an April 26 update to the board on the status of its major initiatives, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that the report has organized the recommendations according to five themes: Inventory, Governance, Economy, Assistance and Engagement.

The draft was delivered to the commissioners in March, he noted. Staff met twice that month with the members of the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program (SHIP) committee that oversees affordable housing efforts in the community, he added, so they could review the report.

One of that group’s responsibilities — required by state statute — is to offer recommendations on affordable housing plans, Don Hadsell, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development in Sarasota, pointed out during a Feb. 10, 2016 County Commission meeting.

The last time the local SHIP committee crafted such a report, Hadsell said, was in 2013.

A chart shows wages for various jobs in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On April 26, Lewis told the commissioners that a third meeting with the committee members was planned for May 1, at their request. After county staff has completed the committee’s prioritization of recommendations and updated the draft, he added, the report will be the focus of a board discussion.

The issue of insufficient affordable housing came up most recently during the County Commission’s regular meeting on April 25, when Joan McGill, vice president for business development at the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, reported on the findings of a survey of the leaders of 74 companies in the county. Both the County and the Sarasota city commissions have been grappling for the past few years with how best to help resolve the issue.

The Executive Summary of the draft report points out, “Living in a safe, affordable, and well-located home is one of the most important quality of life issues for every Sarasota County resident. … Similar to other desirable locations around the state, nation and world, the county is experiencing an increasing shortage of workforce housing. This is non-subsidized housing that is affordable to residents earning [less than] 140% of the Area Median Income (AMI).”

In 2015, an accompanying chart shows, the AMI for a family of four was $60,700. Housing generally is considered affordable, the chart notes, “if it costs no more than 30 percent of household income.”

The chart goes on to define “affordable housing” as a dwelling “that meets the ‘affordability’ definition for a household with an income of 80 percent or less than the AMI.”

“The biggest barrier to workforce housing identified by the community feedback related to a lack of inventory,” the summary explains. Additionally, “wages were repeatedly identified” as a hindrance to workers’ being able to afford housing, the report continues.

More demographic data in the chart focus on jobs, wages and housing costs. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Work on the report began in the winter of 2016, the summary points out, following the County Commission’s Feb. 29, 2016 budget workshop. That day, Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida, discussed the overall shortage of single-family homes for sale in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Snaith also pointed to the fact that Sarasota County was experiencing a slower return of development following the economic downturn than its neighboring counties were.

The project team behind the report — comprising representatives from numerous county departments — has conducted research focused on comparison counties and “best practices both locally and nationally,” the summary says. The team also developed “a method for gathering community feedback on the barriers and creative solutions to housing affordability,” the summary adds.

More of the recommendations

In response to the concerns about inventory, the draft report suggests, for example, that “[p]lacing housing affordable to workers near employment centers” would alleviate the pressure of long commutes and improve the quality of life for workers. The housing should encompass a town center, the report says, “near access to schools, shopping, transportation and amenities.”

The draft report also points out that local governments can provide density bonuses to developers willing to build affordable housing. Among the suggestions, it says, is “a sliding scale for density whereby smaller homes (on smaller lots) could yield more density [than] larger homes (on larger lots).”

Yet another recommendation is for local governments with surplus lands that are undeveloped to make that property available for affordable housing. For example, Manatee County discounts the cost of such property to a developer who will construct such a project, the report notes.

As for infill opportunities: One recommendation is for “turning former commercial properties such as hotels, motels and hospitals into small apartments on [or] near the urban core. The key with these larger projects seemed to be that they are turned into some form of multi-family housing near transportation options,” the draft report adds.

The report says staff received more than 840 responses to the survey it conducted as part of the research. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another recommendation is to streamline the permitting process for affordable housing projects. “With that said,” the report continues, “it is worth noting that affordable housing projects oftentimes are accompanied by resistance from residents who do not approve of increases in density, traffic or the overall perception of affordable housing that may impact property values.”

One recommendation focuses on combatting the “not-in-my-back-yard” resistance to affordable housing projects, because of the negative perception many people have about such developments. The draft points to a belief many people hold that those in need of housing assistance would make bad neighbors because they have poor credit and lack budgeting skills, for example. The draft says community forums and advisory boards could be used to educate the public.

The draft report also mentions the potential for “[p]referential treatment for locals,” because of concerns that seasonal residents and tourists are “negatively impacting the affordable housing market.” Among the suggestions are limiting the number of investment properties nonresidents can purchase; offering incentives or discounts for local buyers; allowing financial institutions to consider all reasonable offers from people who live or work in the county before considering nonresidents for offers on foreclosed properties; and providing incentives to property owners if they sell to people who intend to work and live full-time in the community.

Among other recommendations was providing assistance to workers, including subsidies such as vouchers and grants; rent-to-own programs; first-time homebuyer aid; and down-payment help.

Additionally, the draft notes the need to diversify the county’s economic base, which will lead to new employment opportunities with higher wages. It points out that many of the jobs related to tourism are low-paying ones.

The draft situational report was emailed on March 8 from Matthew Osterhoudt, director of the County’s Planning and Development Services Department, to County Administrator Tom Harmer.