With urging from nonprofit SURE, City Commission agrees to direct staff to research information related to funding sources for affordable housing

Staff already preparing to deliver the commission a report this summer in response to Florida Housing Coalition recommendations on affordable housing

The Rev. Wayne Farrell (left) listens as Ryan McBride makes a point to the City Commission this week. News Leader photo

Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody won unanimous support of his colleagues this week on a motion directing city staff to research options for a dedicated funding stream for the city’s affordable housing trust fund and report back to the board as soon as possible.

The funding would be in addition to the contributions developers are required to make to the trust fund under city regulations.

The goal would be to provide incentives to developers for projects, Brody said.

Brody made his motion after midnight on April 16, following a presentation by representatives of SURE, who talked of the potential of a City of Sarasota trust fund with $5 million available each year.

The SURE representatives also urged the commissioners to create an advisory committee that would meet on a regular basis to make certain that the money was being used in the best possible ways.

“I think everybody’s familiar with what SURE is,” Brody said at the outset of the discussion, which was the last item of business on the board’s April 15 agenda. What the nonprofit is asking for, he continued, “and what we’re doing already really isn’t that far off.”

Material provided to the board members in advance of the meeting explained that SURE “was founded in 1998 when clergy from diverse congregations throughout Sarasota recognized the need to unite with one another to form a powerful voice to press for necessary change in the community.” Among the nonprofit’s focuses has been the creation of more affordable housing units.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody. File photo

A report from SURE’s Affordable Housing Committee, included with the backup agenda material, said that 75,000 families in the county spend one-third of their income on housing. Of those, it continued, “nearly 15,000 families in Sarasota County make less than $42,000 annually and spend 50% of their income on housing. These households are one paycheck away from homelessness.”

Although SURE is asking for a new, $5-million trust fund, Brody pointed out on April 16, he did not think it was a bad idea to ask staff to determine how much money routinely is available in the city’s affordable housing trust fund and whether other potential sources of revenue could be dedicated to that fund.

Seeking certainty of assistance

During the SURE presentation, Ryan McBride, pastor of the 12 Springs Church in the Rosemary District, pointed out that when a prior commission approved an increase in density for housing projects in the Rosemary District, the expectation was that a certain number of the units would be affordable. “What we got … is market-rate and above-market-rate housing.”

With a dedicated revenue stream for a new trust fund, he continued, the commission could “facilitate long-term planning” for affordable housing.

The board members should not depend on budget surpluses or revenue “from here and there” to assist with affordable housing projects, he added. In lean budget years, he told the commissioners, affordable housing “is often needed the most”; yet, that is when revenue is least available.

The Rev. Wayne Farrell, rector of St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key, pointed out that if the city had a $5-million trust fund, that could leverage as much as $40 million in public and private money for new developments.

“It’s a best practice,” he said of setting aside the money, adding that the City of Sarasota makes efforts to follow best practices.

“That’s presupposing that there’s land,” Mayor Liz Alpert pointed out. “We don’t know how many units could be built in a year,” she said, as land is not easy to find for projects in Sarasota.

This is a slide from the SURE presentation to the commission. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Farrell noted a development in St. Petersburg called Booker Creek. “This looks like any other market-rate apartment project,” he said. Yet, of the 156 units, 63 are available for renters making 60% of the Annual Median Income (AMI) or below that mark. Ninety percent of the units, Farrell added, are affordable to people with 80% to 120% of AMI.

(In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that the median family income in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area was $70,300. Therefore, 80% of AMI was $56,250 for a family of four; 50% of AMI was $35,150.)

St. Petersburg’s affordable housing trust fund provided $2 million as an incentive to a private developer, Farrell continued, which led to the construction of Booker Creek.

A slide shows the Booker Creek complex in St. Petersburg. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With the creation of a new affordable housing trust fund in the City of Sarasota, Farrell added, the commission would have a say on rent levels and how long units would have to remain affordable.

After the men concluded their remarks, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie assured them that the commissioners have talked about creating more affordable housing stock “as a strategy,” and that that will be one focus of their discussions with staff as the city’s 2020 fiscal year budget preparation is underway.

Commissioner Willie Shaw also noted that the city and county receive money from the state and federal governments that goes toward affordable housing initiatives.

The city has a separate trust fund containing the developer contributions, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown added.

“I don’t know just what it is that you’re asking,” Shaw told the SURE representatives.

(The State Housing Initiatives Partnership [SHIP] “is a dedicated funding source established by the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act passed by the Florida Legislature in 1992,” a city document explains. The Florida Housing Finance Agency administers that program, providing funds to local governments “for a variety of housing construction and rehabilitation activities,” the document adds.)

(The Office of Housing and Community Development, which is a City/County of Sarasota agency, handles the SHIP funds on behalf of the two local governments.)

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

McBride also noted that even if the state Legislature this year did not raid the Sadowski Trust Funds, the city still should establish a new local fund. The primary reason SURE members have learned that developers do not consider projects in Sarasota, McBride continued on April 16, is the lack of a local trust fund.

Commissioner Freeland Eddie concurred that a local fund would help spur the development of more affordable housing units.

(During the Dec. 3 City Commission meeting, Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, said that the City and County of Sarasota have lost more than $30 million over the past 15 years because of the Legislature’s removal of money from the Sadowski Trust Funds for other purposes.

(A December 2017 Florida Sun Sentinel article explains that, about 26 years ago, the Legislature established the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund with a dedicated revenue stream from the document stamp tax paid for real estate title transactions. The money is supposed to be used for affordable housing. “But beginning in 2003,” reporter Dan Sweeney wrote, “the Legislature began simply taking money out of the trust fund and using it to shore up the budget. The process accelerated during the Great Recession …”)

Brown further pointed out this week that staff already is planning to present to the commission this summer a comprehensive report on affordable housing. It will be a response to recommendations made late last year by the Florida Housing Coalition, Brown said.

As for the oversight committee, Brown explained that the advisory group established in the community to comply with state regulations is required to meet at least every three years.

McBride emphasized that SURE is “keenly interested” in a different oversight board, “just so there’s accountability for local money.”

Brown replied that, because of governmental regulations, the City Commission would have the ultimate oversight regarding the spending of any affordable housing money. A new board could serve in an advisory capacity only, Brown added.

Brody suggested that the existing community oversight board might be able to advise the City Commission on use of dedicated revenue in the city’s trust fund.

“I don’t think we know enough about our affordable housing trust fund,” Brody told his colleagues. That was one reason he was seeking staff research in response to the SURE request, he added.

Finally, after making his motion for the direction to staff, and getting a second from Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, Brody emphasized that the $5 million a year from dedicated revenue streams is SURE’s goal, but he was not incorporating the figure into his motion.