Public pleads for County Commission to boost allocation for affordable housing efforts out of $84.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds

Commissioners voice concerns about not interfering with ‘market forces’

William Russell of the Sarasota Housing Authority addresses the commissioners on Dec. 7. News Leader image

On Dec. 3, William Russell, president and CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority, sent an email to Assistant Sarasota County Administrator Brad Johnson and Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.

“I need to express my disappointment that the staff ARPA plan appears to allocate only $5 million for affordable housing, despite the fact that county residents expressed that affordable housing was far and away the most important issue to be addressed,” Russell wrote.

He was referring to the $84.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that the county had received from the federal government to mitigate the negative financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russell also was referencing residents’ responses to a county survey asking how they felt the federal money should be used.

Launched on Oct. 11, the four-week survey found that of the 727 responses, 453 cited “Affordable housing” as the top area of concern. In second place, with 323 responses, was “Homelessness prevention and support.”

“I know there are many competing demands, priorities and interests vying for the $84 million,” Russell continued in his email, “but it seems like affordable housing got minimal investment which seems incongruent with the expressed interest and concern of the respondents, not to mention the glaring need for affordable housing in our community, which is only getting worse with the rapid increase in rents and home prices.

“I certainly hope that County leadership would revisit this prioritization,” Russell added.

As shown in in a PowerPoint presentation to the commissioners on Dec. 7, county staff members not only had recommended that just $5 million of the $84.2 million be set aside for affordable housing projects, but they also had focused on the “[p]otential leveraging” of other federal funds for affordable housing.

These are the survey results to which William Russell alluded in his email to county staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Russell was among 23 people, by count of The Sarasota News Leader, who addressed the commissioners during the morning and afternoon Open to the Public comment periods of the board’s regular meeting on Dec. 7. Those speakers were united in pleading for more of the ARPA money to be put toward affordable housing.

At one point during the board’s discussion that day, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “Five million [dollars] out of $84 million is ridiculously low.”

It took about an hour and 20 minutes, but the commissioners finally provided preliminary direction to staff about how they would like to see the $84.2 million spent.

Chair Alan Maio worked with his colleagues to eliminate certain options staff had proposed while emphasizing the need to add to others. Among the latter, Maio concurred that more money should be set aside for affordable housing.

Detert underscored that need with an anecdote. She said that someone had called her that morning to tell her that an 82-year-old woman has had to get a job bagging groceries at a Publix store because the woman’s rent had been raised and she no longer could afford it without a boost to her income.

“There’s very little in the way of low-income options” for seniors who do not have much financial wherewithal, Detert pointed out.

She had been talking with leaders of the Loveland Center in Venice, Detert continued. Loveland already has constructed an apartment complex for “developmentally delayed, high-functioning individuals” who are able to live on their own, she said. The nonprofit would be willing to dedicate 8 acres of its property to a senior campus for 60 to 80 families, Detert added. “It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship,” she noted of seniors living near the developmentally delayed adults. “I think they would work together and actually help each other …”

This is one of the rotating banners from the Loveland Center website. Image from the Loveland Center

Maio voiced support for that idea.

While the other three commissioners did talk of the need for more affordable housing in the community, each nonetheless voiced concerns, as Commissioner Michael Moran characterized it, about jumping into the “raging river of the free market with housing.” However, Moran said he would consider more funding for affordable housing programs, “if we have very clear rules about leveraging [county spending] with other state and federal money …”

“We’re tasked with the taxpayers to do whatever it takes to make this a wonderful place to live,” Moran continued. Those efforts draw more and more new residents to the community, he noted, “which makes the housing costs go up.”

He was not sure how the County Commission could help with that situation, Moran said.

“I don’t think the county needs to get into the building business,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added, noting his disinclination to interfere with housing market forces.

These are facts about how the American Rescue Plan funding can be used. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger did say, “I’m very much in favor of moving additional money into affordable housing [programs].” However, the focus, in his opinion, he added, should be on public/private projects. “No way [am I] in favor of us building affordable housing projects. … That’s not our role. … It’s just expensive to live here, and there’s not an easy solution.”

Yet, former Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, emphasized to the board members, “The market does a phenomenal job of taking care of the upper end. The market does a terrible job of providing housing for those working at or near minimum wage.”

Thaxton urged the commissioners, “Facilitate the market to do things that it would not normally do on its own.” He added, “The only cure for homelessness is a home, and we do not have the housing inventory to [provide that cure].”

At the end of their discussion, the board members provided County Administrator Jonathan Lewis with a general rundown of how they wanted to adjust the staff proposals. Lewis said staff would be back before them in January 2022 for further vetting of the options.

A problem growing worse

A number of the 22 other people who joined Russell of the Sarasota Housing Authority in urging the board members to prioritize spending on affordable housing offered statistics and examples of the impacts that rising rents have had in the community.

Ashley Brown makes her remarks on Dec. 7. News Leader image

Ashley Brown, president and CEO of the Women’s Resource Center in Sarasota, pointed out that 73% of the female heads of households in the community “were struggling to make ends meet” before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated that situation.

Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, talked of the 213% increase in the nonprofit’s call volume from families at risk of homelessness since the pandemic began. “We’ve seen up to 50% increases in rent,” he said.

Offering an example of the situation, he told the board members about a single mother with two children who works for one of the Suncoast Partnership’s partner agencies. She was paying $975 a month in rent for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, Johnson said. Then her landlord made some minor improvements and raised the rent to $1,795 a 54% increase, he added.

“She called us, saying, ‘I can’t afford this.’” Yet, Johnson pointed out, she cannot go to any of the shelters in the county. “They’re full.”

People such as this woman and her children “have nowhere to go,” Johnson stressed.

Kelly Erdmann of the Nothing Bundt Cakes franchise on Fruitville Road in Sarasota pointed out that 25% of her 12 team members have been affected by lack of affordable housing in the county. One has been living in her car for about two months, Erdmann added. The woman and her husband moved to Sarasota from South Carolina, Erdmann said. They recently purchased a trailer that they are renovating, Erdmann continued, but, in the meantime, “They shower at a local health club every evening, where they have met several people just like them, living out of their vans,” because no affordable housing can be found.

Mary Dougherty. Image from the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange website

Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange in Lakewood Ranch, told the commissioners, “For quite some time,” members of her organization have been contending with a labor shortage. They offer average annual wages of $43,000 to $44,000, she continued. Yet, by the time taxes and Social Security and other deductions come out of those salaries, Dougherty stressed, the employee has only about $3,000 a month to spend on living expenses, and monthly rents in the county are $2,000 to $2,800.

Members of the Xchange are going on recruiting trips to universities such as Auburn and the University of Florida, she added. The employers easily find qualified candidates, she indicated, but once those potential workers come to Sarasota County to look for housing, they back away from the job offers. “Unfortunately, they can’t afford to live here.”

Kevin Stiff, coordinator of the City of Sarasota’s response to homelessness, pointed out that the Sarasota Housing Authority offers the city’s Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTs) 60 vouchers to help move individuals from the streets into housing. “We can’t even find landlords to use those vouchers,” Stiff emphasized to the commissioners.

Divvying up the dollars

The largest single allocation of the ARPA funds proposed by county staff was $31 million to connect 1,340 more households in the Phillippi Creek watershed to a central sewer system, eliminating those households’ septic tanks.

This slide, presented to the board on Dec. 7, provides information about how county staff decided on the funding proposals. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Former Commissioner Thaxton recommended against that, noting that more recent innovations that can improve water quality would offer a greater return on the county’s investment.

Chair Maio concurred with Thaxton, citing discussions Maio had had with Steve Suau, a county resident who has been working on the types of projects to which Thaxton had alluded.

In response to commissioners’ questions about the staff proposal, Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, said that the cost for each household for the sewer-to-septic program would be in a range of $7,000 to $10,000.

“This area has historically been asking for this project to be completed,” Mylett added of the Phillippi Creek program area targeted for the new funding. Moreover, he said, based on past initiatives in the Phillippi Creek basin, “We get about 93% compliance within 365 days of completing the project,” meaning the households go ahead and contract with plumbers to connect to the sewer system and destroy their septic tanks.

Commissioner Detert noted that one of her first acts after her election to the Florida House was to introduce a bill, in 1998, to give state funds to the county to assist with the Phillippi Creek program. She suggested that the $31 million could be used more effectively in other ways.

Commissioner Ziegler stressed on three occasions that he would like to see the $31 million used to help cover the approximately $500-million expense for the county to convert its three wastewater treatment facilities to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status. The goal with those efforts is to achieve a significant decrease in the amount of nitrogen going into county waterways. Nitrogen has been identified as the primary food for the red tide algae.

This May 8, 2019 graphic provided to the Sarasota County Commission shows details about the nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment plants in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ziegler pointed out that county utility customers are having to pay higher water and sewer rates because of the need to cover the AWT conversions.

In July, the commissioners agreed to extend 5% increases in the utility fees through the 2027 fiscal year. Customers already are in their third year of the rate hikes, which are paying for the debt on bonds the county issued cover the cost of the approximately $165-million conversion of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to AWT and to increase its capacity from 12 million gallons per day to 18 million gallons per day.

Ultimately, on Dec. 7, the board members concurred that they would put the $31 million on hold until they could decide how best to use it.

Likewise, they agreed to put in the category for later decisions the $3 million that had been proposed to renovate a building in Venice to provide emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals in South County. The goal has been to provide an alternative to transporting persons to the Salvation Army in Sarasota. Most South County homeless individuals decline offers to go to North County, representatives of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office have told the board members, as South County is where those persons typically have lived most of their lives.

Commissioners also noted on Dec. 7 that concerns had arisen about the potential transformation of the Florida Highway Patrol station in Venice into a HOT bed facility.

This is a section of a staff report on potential uses of the ARPA funding. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, the commissioners talked of the likelihood that they would increase the $5 million that staff had recommended for mental health projects.

They did agree to spending $5 million on ventilation and other air quality improvements for the north wing of the jail, for the Criminal Justice Center and for the Judicial Center — all in downtown Sarasota — to make those facilities safer for the public during the pandemic.

Further, staff had proposed spending $5 million for a line item that said, “County Self Insurance Covid-19 Medical Expenses.”
When Commissioner Ziegler asked about that, County Administrator Lewis pointed out that the departments of four of the county’s constitutional officers — including the sheriff — along with employees of Sarasota County Government, are covered by the county’s self-insurance plan. Therefore, Lewis continued, the county has had to contend with claims related to treatment for COVID-19. The average cost of a hospital stay, based on his latest review of claims, Lewis added, was approximately $48,000.

The total in claims is “far in excess” of $1.5 million, Lewis said. However, he added that the final figure could be lower than $5 million.

The commissioners then concurred with leaving that allocation on the list.

Four million dollars was earmarked for the installation of approximately 2.5 miles of a large-diameter, potable water main from Laurel Road north along Knights Trail Road “to serve planned County facilities in the corridor and to eventually build out the distribution system in the portion of the County east of [Interstate 75],” as a county document put it. The commissioners also agreed to keep that funding in place.

2 thoughts on “Public pleads for County Commission to boost allocation for affordable housing efforts out of $84.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds”

  1. The need for affordable housing in Sarasota County is not new. Now with millions in free “federal CARE” funds to distribute, local employers (desperate to keep their low-paid workers) have come out of the woodwork to plead for housing support. Would the Commission have been as sympathetic if those testifying had been the low paid workers?

    Isn’t the head of the SRQ Housing Authority trying to gentrify low income neighborhoods in downtown SRQ–pushing out the poor? If so, how can his pleas for $$$ be taken seriously?

    At least Nancy Detert has been fairly consistent with her support of affordable housing. Her colleagues and those testifying are another story.

  2. Hi Longwood Run. I need to correct your assertion about the housing authority is “trying to gentrify low income neighborhoods in downtown SRQ–pushing out the poor”

    The fact is that we are currently building Lofts on Lemon, 128 apartments in the Rosemary District that has seen very high-cost housing be built and a textbook gentrification actually occur. However, we are building affordable housing – an island if you will – amidst a sea of high priced rentals and condos. 76 of the new apartments MUST be rented to families who are low income. Actually even lower – below 60% of area median income. We are also building 52 apartments for hometown heroes- teachers, nurses, cops and firefighters- who provide a critical service for the community but can’t afford to live anywhere near downtown. The Barancik Foundation provided a $2 million grant and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County provided a very low-interest loan for another $2 million to help fund these apartments. What we are building downtown is critical affordable housing. That is not gentrification. It is the opposite.

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