Latest reduction in state funding for affordable housing programs spurs city commissioners to agree to increased advocacy at the legislative level

City commissioners also approve recommendations to eliminate $746,000 deficit involving local programs

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. file photo

By consensus this week, the Sarasota city commissioners agreed to urge the members of the county’s legislative delegation to work on stopping the state government’s continual raiding of money that is supposed to be set aside for affordable housing.

Established in 1992, the Sandowski Fund receives a portion of the document stamp tax paid on all real estate transactions in the state. “Those monies were dedicated to the state and local housing trust funds,” the Sandowski Coalition website explains.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie suggested during the board’s Jan. 22 meeting that Mayor Liz Alpert send a letter to the Sarasota County Commission, conveying the city board’s concerns about the Sandowski Fund.

Don Hadsell, general manager of community development for the city, had pointed out that Rob Lewis, director of governmental relations for the county, lobbies the Legislature on behalf of the County Commission.

The city and the county collaborate on housing programs through the Office of Housing and Community Development, of which Hadsell also is the director.

Additionally, Freeland Eddie said that the city commissioners themselves need to put an emphasis on the necessity of funding affordable homes when they travel to Tallahassee for the annual Legislative Action Day, set for late March. “I just think that every little bit we can do helps.”

Freeland Eddie brought up her concerns in response to a request from Hadsell that was on the Jan. 22 agenda. Because of the most recent “sweep” of the Sandowski money, Hadsell had explained in a memo, the City Commission would need to eliminate a $745,513 deficit in its appropriations for local housing assistance.

Hadsell’s memo said, “At least every three years local governments must submit a Local Housing Assistance Plan (LHAP) to the [Florida Housing Finance Corp.] detailing how the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) funds are supposed to be used.”

(The Sandowski Housing Coalition website says that 70% of the revenue allocated to the Sandowski Fund is dedicated to the Local Government Housing Trust Fund for the SHIP program, which pays for housing programs in all 67 counties and larger cities.

(The website also notes, “More than 911,000 very low income Floridians pay more than 50% of their income on housing,” so they are “one missed paycheck away from homelessness.” Florida has the third largest homeless population in the nation,” the website adds.)

Don Hadsell addresses the County Commission in 2014. File photo

On June 6, 2016, Hadsell’s memo pointed out, the City Commission approved the 2017-2019 LHAP, which was prepared “estimating that approximately $2,500,000 in new SHIP funding would be appropriated” by the Legislature and that $300,000 in loan repayments would be received. Because the Legislature diverted the majority of the SHIP funds into its general revenue account, the memo said, Sarasota received only “a small portion of the funding that was available.”

An accompanying document from Hadsell recommended a series of steps to deal with the $745,513 deficit. Among them was eliminating $195,000 in new funding for the city’s Rapid Rehousing Program, which assists homeless individuals. A private donor has provided $2 million for Rapid Rehousing, Hadsell noted in the document. That money “will be sufficient to meet the local need through June 30, 2019, the end of the current plan.”

Another recommendation was to reduce the allocation for special needs housing by $41,819. “State law,” the document explained, “requires that 20% of the SHIP allocation be used to benefit special needs households.”

If the Legislature had not “swept” so much of the SHIP funds in its 2018 session, Hadsell told the City Commission on Jan. 22, the city and county would have received $4,853,823 last year. Yet, the city and county ended up with $638,000 in 2018, he added.

This chart in a document Don Hadsell provided the City Commission shows details about the SHIP funding for recent years. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If the city were going it alone, he said, the city would have received about $60,000. The funds, he noted, are allocated on the basis of population.

Every year, Hadsell pointed out, some other priority seems to arise, leading the Legislature to pull money out of the Sandowski Fund. “Last year, it was Parkland,” he said, referring to the shootings at the South Florida high school that led to legislative action to create a statewide program to improve school safety.

This year, Hadsell told the commissioners, he expects clean water initiatives would be the likely purpose for which state leaders would raid the affordable housing fund.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made clean water programs a major focus, given the national attention put on the state’s red tide and blue-green algae woes last summer.

Frustrations and determination

The reduction in the SHIP funding was on the City Commission’s Consent Agenda No. 1 for its Jan. 22 meeting, but both Freeland Eddie and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch had pulled it for discussion.

At one point, Freeland Eddie asked when the city’s lobbyist was scheduled to address the board, because she wanted to urge that person to advocate for the Legislature’s reimbursement of the Sandowski Fund.

City Manager Tom Barwin reminded her that the city employs a federal lobbyist, but not one at the state level.

Commissioner Willie Shaw. File photo

“We depend on you,” Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the commissioners.

Hadsell then pointed out that Lewis acts on behalf of the county commissioners. “He has made their Sandowski desires well known.”

The Florida Housing Coalition also has a lobbyist, Hadsell noted.

“Right now, we actually have a decent situation,” Hadsell continued. Florida Senate President Bill Galvano is from Manatee County, Hadsell said, and Galvano has expressed support for keeping the Sandowski Funds whole. Further, when Gov. DeSantis was campaigning for office, DeSantis talked of his support of the Sandowski Fund, Hadsell told the commissioners.

Yet, Hadsell added, “As always, we’re going to have a difficult time in the House.” Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, Hadsell noted, has made it known that the Sandowski Fund is not one of his priorities.

“This has been an issue of urgency,” Commissioner Willie Shaw pointed out, referring to the diversion of money from the Sandowski Fund. He has chaired the Urban Administration Committee of the Florida League of Cities for the past three years, Shaw added, and that committee has remained focused on advocacy for the fund. All 412 municipalities in the state “have carried this [issue] or will be carrying it to our Legislative Day [this spring].”

Shaw agreed with Freeland Eddie’s suggestion about sending a letter from the mayor to the County Commission. Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch did, too. “I fully support all of the comments that Commissioner Freeland Eddie said, and I couldn’t agree more” with her and Shaw, Ahearn-Koch added. “We will need to contact our legislators to make it known that [the Sandowski Fund is money] that we really need to have.”

Shaw finally made a motion to approve the reduction in the SHIP program funding for the city, and Freeland Eddie seconded it. The motion passed 5-0.