More members of public plead for commissioners to help persons forced out of homes by rising rents
Although they heard from several more speakers this week, urging them to make an even higher financial commitment to affordable housing projects out of new federal COVID-19 relief funding, the Sarasota County commissioners agreed only to the $25-million allocation suggested by staff.
In a Dec. 28, 2021 letter to the commissioners, representatives from several organizations — including the Sarasota Housing Authority and the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation — urged the board members to reallocate to affordable housing initiatives the full $31 million that county staff originally had proposed for another round of sewer-to-septic projects in the Phillippi Creek Basin.
The letter writers also suggested that the commissioners direct county staff, “preferably in coordination with the Office of Housing & Community Development (the county-wide agency responsible for, and experienced in, affordable housing projects), to develop a process to solicit and evaluate development proposals from both non-profit and for-profit developers.”
The letter was a follow-up to the commission’s Dec. 7, 2021 discussion about how best to use the approximately $84.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds provided to the county to aid residents suffering financial harm as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
County staff initially had proposed only $5 million for affordable housing efforts.
On Jan. 11, during the commission’s first regular meeting of 2022, several speakers who addressed them on the ARPA funding last month were back at the podium, providing more anecdotes and statistics about how the lack of affordable housing has become an even greater problem for the county in recent months.
Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, pointed out, “We have run into a first for our community.” Since family shelters were established several years ago, he said, nonprofit organizations had been able to ensure that families forced out of their homes were able to find shelter space. “That is no longer true,” he added.
Last week, Johnson reported, the Partnership’s housing specialist dealt with 70 calls from people seeking emergency shelter housing for their families; yet, only two spots were available.
In November and December 2021, Johnson continued, the call volume from families seeking aid was up 79% and 76%, respectively. These were families facing homeless for the first time, he stressed. They “have nowhere to go.”
One father with two children explained that they had been living in a hotel since August, Johnson told the commissioners. “He has drained [the] $20,000 [that was] in his savings account.” The man has a job, Johnson added, but no home.
“We are in a new place for our community,” Johnson said.
Laurie Bennett, executive director of human resources for the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System, talked of the challenges of retaining employees, who are experiencing rent hikes between $200 and $400 a month, and recruiting new employees, including nurses and respiratory therapists. “Affordable housing is a big challenge for us each and every day,” she pointed out. Some days, Bennett said, representatives of the health care system may talk with as many as six candidates for positions, all of whom end up turning down the job offers because they cannot afford to live in Sarasota County.
Yet, Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out later, “This is a market issue that we’re facing. … It’s not the direct financial impacts of COVID that are the issue.” Sarasota County is in high demand as a place to live, he added. “We need additional [housing] units,” Ziegler pointed out, but residents argue against development and growth.
Nonetheless, Ziegler added, “The only role county government should have is to assist people to bring more units online.”
Commissioner Michael Moran said that he believes the ARPA funds set aside for affordable housing should be used to leverage low-income housing tax credits.
(As the Urban Institute explains in a 2018 report, “The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is a complex but crucial tool for the production and preservation of affordable rental housing. Through this program, private investors receive a federal income tax credit as an incentive to make equity investments in affordable rental housing. Since 1986, nearly 3 million affordable housing units have been placed in service.”)
Fine-tuning affordable housing project proposals and allocations for other needs
After approximately 50 minutes of discussion on Jan. 11, the commissioners agreed to the potential use of $25 million for affordable housing efforts. However, that followed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis’ request of the board members to allow him and other staff members “to go out and work with the housing community”; representatives of foundations in the area; the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); the Office of Housing & Community Development, which serves both the City and County of Sarasota, as well as the county’s municipalities; and other entities. He and staff would “bring back specific projects to you all that are eligible [for ARPA funding],” Lewis added.
His goal, he said, is to have that information ready for the commission by late March or early April, though he acknowledged that some staff members thought that was too optimistic a timeline.
However, Steve Hyatt of the county’s Office of Financial Management, who is managing the ARPA program for the county, reported that the guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury calls for all of the APRA money to be obligated by the end of 2024, and it all must be spent by the end of 2026. Therefore, Lewis said, his plan is to allow the commissioners time to redirect any of the $25 million if they ultimately disapprove of any of affordable housing proposals that staff presents to them.
In response to a question from Commissioner Moran, Hyatt said that any funds the county does not spend out of its ARPA allocation would have to be returned to the Treasury Department.
Moran also made it clear that he wants to ensure that the county will not be forced to cover any expense that Treasury officials later deem ineligible. “Boy, our legal team is going to have to be on their toes,” Moran said.
Along with the $25 tentative allocation to affordable housing initiatives, the commissioners this week unanimously agreed to the following breakdown of the rest of the $84.2 million, reprising a number of decisions they made in December:
- $8 million for mental health care projects. The figure that staff recommended in December 2021 was $5 million. Hyatt, the ARPA program manager, noted that part of these funds may end up being used in response to recommendations from a task force, in accord with the 2021 establishment of a Mental Health Care Special District, which the commissioners will govern.
Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, appointed the subject matter experts, at the commission’s request, to review how county funds have been spent on mental health care services and determine any gaps or areas that need more financial support. A county staff memo in the Jan. 11 agenda packet said that the task force is expected to deliver its final report at the end of this month or in February.
- $10 million for the conversion of the Venice Gardens Water Reclamation Facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status.
- $12.5 million for the Sarasota County Fire Department and EMS services.
- $12,749,299 to cover county expenses related to its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- $5 million for ventilation and air quality improvements.
- $4 million for utility improvements on Knights Trail.
- $1 million in administrative expenses, though County Administrator Lewis said in December that he did not anticipate needing the full amount.
- $1 million set aside in the event extra money will be required for one of the other categories.
How best to tackle the affordable housing issues
In launching the affordable housing discussion on Jan. 11, Commissioner Nancy Detert referenced comments that morning by Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange. As she had in December, Dougherty talked this week of the difficulty area employers are experiencing with the recruitment of workers.
“Good jobs are available,” Dougherty said on Jan. 11, but “we can’t have the workforce and talent drain that is occurring because of [the lack of affordable housing].”
“I am particularly almost offended,” Detert told her colleagues, “by building groups who are making a fortune off of housing saying, ‘Our employees can’t afford a home.’”
Detert added, “I always compare it to The Grapes of Wrath. It would be nice if your worker who built the home could afford the house that he just built for somebody else.”
Builders, she continued, are “the ones that set the prices, drive the prices up, and then come to say, ‘We don’t have any affordable housing for our workers.’ I’m shocked.”
The homelessness situation has changed in the county, Detert pointed out. People’s rents are being raised “so high that they’re now on the street. These were people that were self-sufficient, have jobs, have families.”
Perhaps it is time for the commissioners to ask staff to research the prospect of capping rent increases, she said, though she emphasized that she opposes rent control.
Several commissioners responded that they never would support rent control measures, which prompted Detert to emphasize that she had not called for rent control.
What she was referring to, she explained, was a process similar to adjustable mortgages. “They can’t go up more than whatever percentage is decided between the two parties, ’cause that’s how capitalism works.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, said he would prefer sending all of the ARPA funds back to the federal government. “None of us are paying for this,” he said. “My three girls are paying for this,” he added, and their children likely will still be paying for it.
Yet, if the county did return the money, Ziegler continued, the funds would be redirected to other areas. “I don’t intend for my daughters to incur a bill for some county in Arkansas …”
As he did in December, Ziegler argued again for using the $31 million originally proposed for the Phillippi Creek Sewer-to-Septic Program to help cover the county’s $500-million expense to convert its three major wastewater treatment facilities to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status. He reminded his colleagues and the public that the commissioners last year agreed to maintain annual 5% utility rate increases through the 2027 fiscal year to pay for those conversions. The sooner the county has in hand sufficient money for those initiatives, Ziegler pointed out, the sooner those utility rates can go down.
Chair Alan Maio stressed that, over the past several years, the commissioners have taken multiple steps to try to encourage more developers to create affordable dwelling units. Among those actions, he said, was the approval of an ordinance allowing a 750-square-foot dwelling to count as half a residential unit, thereby allowing a developer to construct twice as many apartments in a residential multi-family project.
Moreover, Maio emphasized, the board has reduced a variety of fees for developers building projects with smaller units. Yet, he said, “I have yet to really see/hear an outpouring of support for that [750-square-foot model]. Either my idea was the dumbest idea I’ve had in seven years [on the board],” he added, or the problem is the need to educate builders about all the changes in county regulations.
Maio said he knows people “that would literally kill for a 750-square-foot apartment … in a brand new building, with all the appliances and a full bath …”
Only one such development is underway, he noted.