Details debated for ‘half dwelling unit’ criteria in proposed county ordinance designed to foster creation of affordable housing projects

Utilities fee changes under review, as well

A graphic shows potential criteria for projects with half dwelling units. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Sarasota county commissioners have asked staff to consult not only with representatives of the private sector but also with appropriate county advisory boards as they work on their next steps to spur more affordable housing development.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out during a May 25 budget workshop in Sarasota that taking the time for the extra outreach “will extend the timeline” for getting an ordinance on the books. “I just want to make sure the board has thought about that,” he added, referring to pressure the commissioners have put on staff over the past couple of years to facilitate affordable housing creation in the community.

“Personally, I’m OK with that,” Vice Chair Charles Hines responded. “We don’t want to have the unintended consequences” of the five commissioners making decisions. “I’d rather have the full support of the private sector … before we just jump immediately into advertising an ordinance.”

Hines chaired the workshop in the absence of Commissioner Nancy Detert, who, he noted, was absent because of illness.

Narrowing the criteria

During the workshop, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, and Scott Schroyer, director of the Public Utilities Department, explained two more proposals for making the construction of affordable housing more enticing to developers.

Osterhoudt focused on the potential for drafting a new county ordinance that would be applied to “half dwelling units,” which would be defined as those comprising 750 square feet or less space. Schroyer talked of possibilities for lowering water and wastewater capacity fees, which are charged on the basis of an Equivalent Dwelling Unit (EDU) standard. For example, a single-family home has an EDU value of 1, he said, while a mobile home has an EDU value of 0.5. Schroyer suggested that if the latter value were applied to a new classification for homes with 750 or fewer square feet, the expense for connecting such a new residential structure to water and wastewater systems would be $2,673.58, compared to the 1 ECU expense of $5,347.16.

A graphic shows an example of a half dwelling unit. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, Schroyer noted that security deposits and water service usage fees could be reconfigured for those smaller housing units, and the expense of installing a new water service meter could be modified for affordable housing developments.

In recent months, the commissioners unanimously have approved changes in mobility fees and parking space regulations in their effort to encourage the development of affordable housing. As Commissioner Alan Maio noted during the May 25 workshop, the latest measures are among those the board had asked staff to focus on in its approach to spurring affordable housing projects.

During his presentation, Osterhoudt discussed potential criteria for enabling a home to win approval as a half dwelling unit; he sought board guidance on the factors that should be included in an ordinance.

For example, he suggested the units be part of multi-family developments; that they be targeted to renters or owners making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or less; that they be located near major employment areas or commercial centers, or in urban infill areas; that they have close proximity to transit options; and that they be located in mixed-use zoning districts.

Staff research to support those suggestions, he indicated, was based on best practices not only in Florida but across the United States.

“I just don’t want to make this half a dwelling unit too complicated,” Maio told Osterhoudt. “It’s needed everywhere, by all sorts of folks.”

Maio also noted, “I’ve heard, very infrequently, that there’s an opposition to this [initiative],” that he simply is trying to double residential density in the county.

A graphic explains facets of utility fees for housing developments. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Maio pointed out that a parcel zoned Residential Single-Family 1 in Sarasota County can have two-and-a-half dwelling units per acre. Yet, the zoning code does not list any criteria regarding square footage or number of bedrooms. “You get [classified as] a dwelling unit when you’ve got a kitchen,” he added of the zoning regulations.

“We’re not doing any harm to anyone,” he continued, by suggesting homes of 750 square feet or less space, instead of 3,000-, 4,000- or 5,000-square-foot houses.

Finally, he told Osterhoudt, he did not want the new policy to limit half dwelling units to multi-family developments.  “I’d like to see [them] in any of our zoning districts.”

“If the point is to create more opportunity,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said, “I would rely on our staff recommendations, what’s doable.” Nonetheless, he told Osterhoudt, “Draw the circle as large as you can draw the circle, if you are looking for the efficacy that you want. … I’m in the business of expanding opportunities, not trying to hog-tie the policy options.”

He agreed with Maio, Caragiulo said, that the policy should not restrict the half dwelling units to multi-family developments.

When Commissioner Michael Moran asked Osterhoudt what response he had received from the county’s advisory boards regarding the proposals, Osterhoudt said the material had not been presented to any of them, but staff could do that and then come back to the commission with the boards’ recommendations.

Matt Osterhoudt. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Staff had planned public engagement, Osterhoudt continued, as it has done with other such initiatives.

“I’ve constantly said over and over the government doesn’t create these things,” Moran replied; the private sector does.

Maio also voiced concern about including proximity to transit among the options in the policy. If, for example, he said, a developer were to propose a project near a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) stop, and then low ridership on the route served by that stop led to the route’s cancellation, the developer would not be able to meet that criterion.

“We should be looking for ways to expand our heavily subsidized transit model and increase ridership,” Caragiulo added. Such possibilities, he noted, exist with the alignment of routes for urban infill developments.

Maio also pointed out that he felt the housing units should be restricted to areas within the county’s Urban Service Area Boundary.

“The more we restrain this,” Mao said, “the more likelihood we will get less [affordable housing], period.”

Vice Chair Charles Hines indicated he liked most of the criteria Osterhoudt had suggested. Still, he added, he was not certain all of them were needed. He agreed with Maio about exploring the potential for half dwelling units as regular detached homes and not just as part of multi-family developments.

He also concurred with Moran’s suggestion for representatives of the building industry and others from the private sector to be involved in a review of the proposal.

Proposals for utility fees

During Schroyer’s presentation, he explained that more research would be needed on the appropriate quantification of Equivalent Dwelling Unit (EDU) for homes up to 750 square feet.

Additionally, he reminded the commissioners that his staff and a consultant hired by the county are undertaking a study of the county’s water and wastewater capacity fees. That includes a review and update of the EDU values, he noted, along with a financial analysis of historical costs and the county’s projected expenses in investments over the next five years related to supply, treatment and transmission systems to serve new customers.

The final report is expected this summer, he said. After it has been completed, he added, it will be presented to the commission.