In the minority on the vote, Mayor Willie Shaw and Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie cite lack of educational outreach and continuing need for down payment assistance
Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw and Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie believe the City of Sarasota still should be using some of the housing funds it receives from the federal government to help families with down payments, they have made clear.
However, their three colleagues on the City Commission prevailed in a Nov. 21 vote, which will keep the board’s focus on its Housing First initiative for the homeless and let nonprofit organizations and the state continue to help families with down payments.
Don Hadsell, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development in the county, explained that 19 public meetings were held as a committee comprising representatives of Sarasota County and the county’s municipalities prepared the updated five-year Consolidated Plan for the allocation of federal housing funds for the next five years. Proposals also came before the City Commission on four separate occasions for its approval, he added. The new document went into effect in October.
“We did not get a great deal of comments asking for down payment assistance,” he told the city commissioners during their regular meeting on Nov. 21.
In 2015 — the last time such help was available through the Consolidated Plan funding — only 18 households won aid during the nine-month period it was offered, he pointed out. However, 58 county families have obtained down payment assistance since Jan. 1 through a state program, he noted, and an average of 10 per year over the past four years have received help through the Lee County Housing Finance Authority, a nonprofit. The latter serves a number of Southwest Florida counties, according to its website.
Shaw said he wanted to make certain that families needing the help can obtain it, which is why he asked for the discussion that afternoon.
However, Commissioner Susan Chapman told her colleagues she believed the board should continue with the Consolidated Plan as they approved it in the spring. “If we’ve left money on the table in the past for first-time homebuyers,” she said, “ we really, really need to address, with money, with the Consolidated Plan, [issues related to homelessness in the community].”
“I agree,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell added. “I have a problem with upending the Consolidated Plan,” especially because — as Hadsell had noted — “we had many, many meetings [on it].”
The “hue and cry” in the community has been about homelessness, Atwell pointed out, so that is the issue on which the city should focus its efforts.
Nonetheless, she asked Hadsell whether he and his staff have identified gaps in assistance for families trying to purchase their first homes.
“People are buying houses still with cash,” Hadsell replied. It is very difficult for a first-time homebuyer “to come into the market and put a property under contract,” he continued, because by the time that person can qualify for assistance to make a down payment, in all likelihood, the owner of the house already has found another buyer.
Nonprofit organizations in the community are building houses, he explained, and they work with families to make sure those who qualify can buy those dwellings.
The City Commission’s priority this year for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the Consolidated Plan, he reminded the board, was on extra rental housing and permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
Furthermore, Hadsell explained, if the city provides money for down payment assistance and families who receive it end up in foreclosure, the city has no mechanism to recover the funds. “We take no risk” for anyone who gets help through the state program, he added.
“I know that … people are still recovering from the [Great Recession],” Freeland Eddie told him. She has heard from residents, she said, that they know nothing about programs offering down payment assistance for housing. “I think sometimes we don’t get as many families to apply because they don’t learn about these tools in advance.” As a member of the City Commission, she noted, she has had the opportunity to hear about sources of aid.
Hadsell said the state and Lee County programs have “assisted three times as many people as what we were able to assist with our limited resources.”
“But we did help 18 families,” Freeland Eddie responded.
“We did,” he concurred.
Educational and informational programs about housing assistance are available to community residents, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out.
His staff also refers anyone seeking such help to the entities that provide it, Hadsell added.
Moreover, both the city and Sarasota County Government are planning updates to their websites, Hadsell continued. He hopes to make it easier for people trying to get down payment assistance to find out through those websites how to obtain it, he told the commissioners.
“I’m not going to back off at all on this,” Shaw said, noting the lack of educational efforts in the county regarding the state and nonprofit help.
When Shaw asked for a motion, Atwell called for the city to continue with the Consolidated Plan priorities it identified in the spring, before the plan was put into effect early in this fiscal year. Commissioner Liz Alpert seconded the motion. It then passed 3-2, with Chapman joining Atwell and Alpert in approving it.