Former Commissioner Thaxton points to import of that action
It took close to 80 minutes, but in the end, on March 29, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to $25 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that will go toward construction of 696 affordable housing units that will remain affordable.
Before the board members began winnowing proposals, former Commissioner Jon Thaxton, acting on behalf of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which he serves as a vice president, talked of the gravity of what they could do that afternoon.
He had worked with a number of organizations in the community that handle affordable housing projects, he explained. Altogether, their proposals would target people making less than 65% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which is set annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The plans would “serve many generations of families … as opposed to just one,” he said.
The results would be a variety of dwelling types from North County to North Port, enabling the developers to utilize “a big-time leverage” of $137 million in outside investments.
That day, Thaxton continued, if the commissioners committed the $25 million out of the county’s $84.2-million ARPA allocation, they would create “the largest single-dollar investment and the most units of affordable housing ever by a single vote of the Sarasota County Commission.”
Not only did the commissioners hear public comments from Thaxton before they began their deliberations, but they also had heard pleas for approval from representatives of Habitat for Humanity Sarasota, which operates from North County south to Osprey; and Family Promise of South Sarasota County.
Yet, most of the individuals who addressed the board were members of the group with which Thaxton had worked.
Among them, Lillian Elliott, director of operations for the Women’s Resource Center in Sarasota, told the commissioners that the Center’s clients “need safe affordable housing for them to live in and raise their families.”
“We are seeing a very interesting expansion of our client base,” she continued. “Those that were once volunteers for us are calling us for part-time work,” because their Social Security and retirement checks cannot cover the “huge rent increases that they’re seeing.”
Thaxton did note that the members of the group had forgotten that, during the very first ARPA funding discussion the commissioners conducted — in December 2021 — Detert had won the consensus of her colleagues to set aside $5 million for a senior housing project on the campus of the Loveland Center in Venice.
Loveland already had constructed an apartment complex for “developmentally delayed, high-functioning individuals,” Detert said on Dec. 7, 2021. The leaders of the nonprofit had offered about 8 acres for a senior campus for 60 to 80 families that would entail what Commissioner Nancy Detert described as “kind of a symbiotic relationship,” with the senior adults being able to work with the developmentally challenged residents of the new apartments.
Drilling down on the proposals and the costs
As she looked over the list of proposed projects on March 29, Detert said, “Now we’re in the position of having to cut.” The total exceeded $37,670,000.
“This is a little like Sophie’s Choice,” she added, “when you pick your favorite children and the other one dies. This is not a fun afternoon.”
One concern with which all of the applicants and the commissioners had to contend is the federal deadline for expenditure of the ARPA funds. As Steve Hyatt, the county staff member managing the program, explained, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deadline for obligating all of the federal money is Dec. 31, 2024, with the expenditures necessary no later than Dec. 31, 2026.
“Just to ensure that projects are advancing quickly,” Hyatt said, county staff had made the decision to move up those deadlines. Funds will have to be obligated by Dec. 31, 2023, he said, with all expenditures made by Dec. 31, 2025.
That will make possible an opportunity to reallocate any funds that are not committed by the county’s obligation deadline, he pointed out.
In taking the first board turn at cutting proposals to meet the $20-million mark, Detert talked of the $7.5-million request from Community Assisted Supportive Living (CASL) for the affordable housing project it has planned on property the county gave it at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.
“That’s a pretty big ask,” Detert noted, since CASL did receive that county land after the commission agreed to advertise it for the express purpose of the creation of workforce homes.
She also questioned whether the commission should allocate funding to Habitat for Humanity Sarasota, because its work mostly is in North County. “These federal dollars, I think, should benefit the entire county.”
Later, both Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Ron Cutsinger alluded to the CASL negotiations, as well. Ziegler was the first to note that CASL representatives had talked of their plans to seek tax credits to help pay for that undertaking on North Tamiami Trail.
Then Chair Alan Maio pointed out that, if the commissioners employed “simple math” — though he stressed that “is not the correct way to do this” — they could pare each of the proposals so every project received 61% of the funds sought.
Noting that he once had been on the Habitat for Humanity board, Maio referenced comments that Renee Snyder, president and CEO of that organization, had made earlier: Habitat “does not provide rental housing. Instead,” she said, “we provide the long-term security of an affordable home.”
Each owner of a Habitat house has to pay a mortgage based on the owner’s income, Snyder added. The payments then go into a fund to support the start of another single-family house.
Maio pointed out that the homeowners also put in “sweat equity.”
Taking the next turn, Commissioner Ziegler talked of his exercise in dividing the number of units that would be created by each project, out of the funds each entity was seeking. The range was from $385,000 for Family Promise of South Sarasota County — seven homes for $1.7 million — to $139,000 for the Atlantic Housing Foundation, for a project in North Port — 288 units for $1.5 million.
Still, Ziegler said, “I don’t really think the county should be in the housing business, but I guess that’s where we’re going with this.”
Earlier, he reminded his colleagues that he had preferred allocating more of the ARPA money to the improvements at the three county wastewater treatment plants, which will cost approximately $500 million. During the initial ARPA discussion, he stressed the fact that using a significant percentage of the federal money for those initiatives would reduce the higher monthly utility bills for customers, which the County Commission authorized last year to help cover the debt payments on bonds for the conversions of the plants to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status, as well as capacity expansions.
Ziegler also suggesting eliminating the Family Promise proposal for the seven homes, as well as Phase II of the Sarasota Housing Authority’s Lofts on Lemon project in the city of Sarasota’s Rosemary District.
Commissioner Cutsinger stressed, “I’m a huge fan of Habitat for Humanity,” but he, too, said he felt the other projects would provide a better return on the funding.
Then Maio told his colleagues he would agree to deducting the CASL project, at $7.5 million; the Family Promise proposal at $1.7 million; and the Habitat for Humanity request, which was $7,670,000.
Getting there …
Commissioner Michael Moran suggested deleting the Habitat for Humanity and Family Promise projects and then reducing the CASL request by $3.3 million, leaving it $4.2 million. That left a total of $20 million fore the remaining proposals, he noted.
“We talked last time about leveraging this money,” Moran reminded his colleagues.
Still, Moran suggested that the board members allow Phillip “P.J.” Brooks, the chief operating officer of CASL, an opportunity to address them on the proposal for less money.
“We have tax credits in [the mix of funding]” for the North Trail initiative, Brooks said. However, the goal with the request for the ARPA money, he continued, was to “allow us to fast-track the project” by being able to leverage 4% of the cost in tax credits with the Florida Housing Finance Corp. Reducing the ARPA total, he indicated, would necessitate using tax credits for 9% of the funding.
“I get it,” Moran told him. Yet, Moran asked Brooks, “If you get $4.2 million, can you do your deal?”
“We can make it happen,” Brooks replied.
Then discussion turned to taking money from the Lofts on Lemon plans of the Sarasota Housing Authority. As a result, the commissioners asked William Russell, president and CEO of the Authority, about reducing that $7-million request by $1,650,000.
“Part of what we were trying to do … was to carefully look at projects that could be built within the time frame [established by the county],” Russell explained. Lofts on Lemon, he continued, is “on very valuable land in the urban core, so there’s no more land like that to build affordable housing on.”
The plans call for a 7-story Phase II building, he pointed out, which will include a parking garage for both phases. Spaces in garages can run $40,000 each, Russell noted. “But we’re maximizing the density, and the affordable housing units … are in an amazing location.” They will be provided to teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other essential workers, he stressed.
Construction is expected to take 18 months, he added.
Moreover, he noted, “We still have to go through the city approval process …”
Commissioner Detert said she was inclined to support the full funding for Phase II of Lofts on Lemon.
Finally, with apparent consensus, Commissioner Moran made the motion to eliminate the $1.7-million Family Promise proposal; the $7.67 million for Habitat for Humanity; and reduce the CASL request by $3.3 million.
Detert seconded the motion. “This is a great day for affordable housing, frankly,” she said. “I was impressed with Jon Thaxton,” she added.
The board members would be approving a mix of housing for a wide variety of county residents, Detert pointed out. “I think we’ve covered the whole county and everyone that’s demonstrated a need. … I think we should all be proud to vote for this today.”
Moran’s motion passed 5-0.