Commissioners offer hope that the individual hired will come up with creative ideas to spur new developments
With Chair Michael Moran in the minority, the Sarasota County Commission has approved the hiring of an affordable housing coordinator for the Planning and Development Services Department at the overall expense of $107,561, including benefits.
During the Nov. 4 public hearing on the request, Moran voiced concerns about adding “a layer of bureaucracy” to the efforts to achieve development of more affordable housing projects in the county.
If the new employee were to be dedicated to finding federal and state grant funds that could be used to create affordable housing, Moran added, “I’d be very supportive.”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis reminded Moran about the purpose of the public hearing that morning: “This is a budget amendment [for the position]; you guys don’t do job descriptions.”
Nevertheless, Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, “I think Commissioner Moran made a good point. … There’s just so much funding out there …”
Still, Ziegler acknowledged, “I don’t want to get in the weeds of the job description,” though he added that he hoped staff would consider the remarks he and Moran had made in crafting the responsibilities for the new employee.
A Nov. 4 staff memo about the position, provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting, did note that the employee would coordinate with the Office of Housing and Community Development — which serves the City and County of Sarasota — on “implementing related grant funding for affordable housing.”
Commissioners Alan Maio and Nancy Detert focused on the potential for the person to be creative in coming up with proposals for revising county policies to spur more construction of affordable housing units.
“This is exactly the person that gets their arms around … mixed-use redevelopment, so we could put affordable housing over those oldie but goodie strip centers, or maybe a mixed-use redevelopment project, where those opportunities exist,” Maio said.
Detert concurred, talking of turning “dead shopping malls that already have plenty of parking” into new mixed-use developments with affordable housing on the upper levels.
She added, “I think that young people … have watched their parents get foreclosed on,” which has led many of them to prefer renting homes instead of buying them. If young people do buy houses, she continued, “They want to live small.”
Unlike people her age — who, she said, stay home at night, watching television — Detert noted that young people today are “out and about. So we have to be in touch with the changes in society and how young people want to live.”
Moreover, she pointed out, “Salaries have not kept up with housing [costs].” People do not want to spend 50% of their monthly income on their homes, she said.
“Shopping malls, I’m sorry, are dead,” Detert reiterated her earlier remark. Yet, she emphasized, “It’s not doom and gloom; it’s just change.”
The promise of the proposal
Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development Services, appeared before the commissioners at the outset of the hearing to explain that the position would be advertised online. “I do not have somebody waiting in the wings,” he said.
The ideal person for the job, he continued, would be someone who has a degree in the planning field. The person would be able to help facilitate affordable housing processes “to get successful … projects moving forward.”
The employee also would focus on potential changes to the County Code and the Comprehensive Plan that could spur new projects, Osterhoudt added, and the person could help developers work through existing county regulations. The employee will need “people skills,” as well as technical expertise, Osterhoudt said.
Further, the county staff memo noted that the new employee would track “data, trends and units in the County.”
Commissioner Charles Hines called the proposal “a great idea,” adding, “Affordable housing has been on our priority list for a number of years.” Staff needs a person, he continued, who understands the county’s impact fee structure, for example, and can keep track of county parcels that might be good sites for affordable housing initiatives. (See the related article in this issue.)
Osterhoudt has handled some of the county’s efforts to spur more affordable housing projects, Hines pointed out, and the county’s Real Estate Division staff also has worked on related issues. “[We] need a point person that, every day, this is all they do.”
The impetus for seeking board approval of the position, County Administrator Lewis noted, was a recommendation by the Florida Housing Coalition in a report issued in late 2018 — at the behest of the City and County commissions. The Coalition, he reminded the county commissioners on the board at that time, offered a variety of proposals for expanding the affordable housing stock in the community.
Commissioner Ziegler asked Osterhoudt what accomplishments he envisioned in five or 10 years after having the new employee on staff.
“I would venture to say over the next couple of years we need to keep … making those adjustments to the policies and regulations,” as staff has done over the past couple of years, Osterhoudt replied.
For examples, the commissioners have approved “half dwelling units,” allowing developers to increase residential density in multi-family projects. They also have reduced parking requirements and implemented utility rate and mobility fee changes in their efforts to encourage more developers to propose affordable housing projects.
Referring to Commissioner Hines’ remarks, Ziegler said it would be “probably beneficial to have someone that’s, say, a pit bull,” who would encourage the creation of more affordable housing units.
“They can definitely get in eight hours a day on this,” Detert pointed out of the new employee. She would like to see the employee be “very innovative and creative,” she added; a person “who has the time to explore best practices nationwide … There are a lot of new ideas out there floating.”
She did not want another bureaucrat on staff, Detert said. Instead, she wanted “someone who’s got some vision and forethoughts. … That would be thrilling.”
However, Chair Moran pointed out, “[W]hat’s before us is to literally add a new [full-time employee] to manage a process that we put in place,” which means the expense of more taxpayer dollars.
Commissioner Hines countered that he saw the new employee as someone who would be focused on how to achieve more affordable housing developments through changes to county policies. If the worker cannot achieve any success in two or three years, Hines added, “then that position maybe needs to go away.”
Moran also voiced concerns that “this board forces a developer to make 15 [out of 100 units in a new project] affordable. I’m concerned that all the developer does is go back to the office, grab their Excel spreadsheet, and make the other 85 homes more expensive. You are literally having the unintended consequence of making the issue worse.”
Detert responded, “It’s still beneficial to us to have an expert in the field that only works for us, a full-time employee who’s thinking of new ideas.”
Lower housing demand can lead to more affordable prices, Commissioner Ziegler pointed out, but that “is not going to happen here. … As long as our beach is as beautiful as it is and we take care of water quality,” he continued, “people are going to keep moving here. … Let’s look at the creative solutions we can do.”
Ziegler also said that he wanted the new employee to feel “empowered to come to us with crazy ideas, and we can decide if it’s a good idea or not for the community …”
Detert ended up making the motion to approve the budget amendment necessary to pay for the position, and Commissioner Maio seconded it.
Osterhoudt told the commissioners that if they approved the position that day, he hoped to have it posted quickly. The Sarasota News Leader did not see the posting as of late morning on Nov. 11. Asked about that, County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded that Osterhoudt’s plan had been to advertise the position before the end of this week. However, that might be delayed because of staff’s responsibilities related to Tropical Storm Eta, Winchester indicated.