Workforce housing should be embraced as community asset, president of Florida Housing Coalition says

Jaimie Ross highlights 12 recommendations in ‘Blueprint’ for such developments that Coalition developed at behest of City and County of Sarasota

This is the cover of the report. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

One of the most important steps leaders in the City and County of Sarasota can take to make more workforce housing available is to “embrace [it] as a community asset and/or infrastructure,” Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, told the Sarasota City Commission on Dec. 3.

Ross was reviewing a list of recommendations to the city and county in a report the coalition prepared on behalf of the two local governments.

“It is a good and important asset for your community,” Ross said of workforce housing. When city and county commissioners get pushback from residents about such projects, she said, they should push back themselves. Local government leaders should be confident, she stressed, that they are meeting the needs of the area’s residents.

The recommendation was one of 12 in the Blueprint for Workforce Housing the Coalition completed for the City and County commissions after they finalized an interlocal agreement for the work on July 24. Their goal was for the Coalition to develop an action plan to foster the creation of community housing, a city staff memo explained.

On July 10, the County Commission approved spending $16,666.67 for the project. The total cost was $50,000, based on the contract the City Commission approved on July 2.

The City Commission unanimously accepted the recommendations on Dec. 3.

The Executive Summaryof the Blueprintexplains that a city report on workforce housing found that the median sales price for single-family homes in Sarasota had increased about 40% from 2012, but wages had “not kept up.”

In fact, that city report noted, from 2012 to the fall of this year, the median income of city households rose only 7%, from $40,813 to $43,477. Additionally, the city document said, 77% of all renters and 62% of all homeowners with incomes below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) “are paying more than 30% of their income for housing.” Moreover, it continued, 49% of all renters and 42% of all homeowners with incomes below 80% of the AMI pay more than 50% of their income for housing.

This year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the median family income for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area is $70,300. For a family of four, 80% of the AMI is $56,250, HUD says.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released these figures for Area Median Income in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area this year. Image courtesy of HUD

On Dec. 3, Ross explained that she knew the impetus for the Housing Coalition study came from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. That nonprofit, based in Venice, has been among the strongest advocates for affordable housing in the area.

Coalition representatives were told the plan “should be actionable,” Ross added. Community leaders did not want another study just to put on a shelf, where it would be forgotten, she said.

In elaborating on the recommendation about workforce housing as a community asset, Ross pointed to a project in Davidson, N.C. That city was losing its workforce, she said, so the mayor and town council refused to approve any more single-family housing developments for a short period of time. They learned that the affordable housing stock in the city represented 12% of all the homes, she continued. Therefore, they agreed that the percentage of workforce housing in any new developments also would have to be 12%. Additionally, they ensured that new housing stock would stay affordable for 99 years, Ross said.

These are triplexes in Davidson, N.C. that were built in a workforce housing project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When she asked the Davidson leaders if they faced any pushback from residents, Ross told the Sarasota City Commission, she learned that the only negative remarks were from people who did not like a related requirement. That called for the developers of new housing projects to preserve 50% of each site as open space.

Ross also pointed out to the Sarasota city commissioners that when they rezone privately owned land, they increase its value. In no way, she continued, is the board charged with making sure “private property owners make as much money as they can on their investment.”

Jaimie Ross addresses the City Commission on Dec. 3. News Leader photo

As elected leaders, she continued, the city and county commissioners must work to ensure that the community has adequate housing for the entire population.

While it is the private sector that actually produces housing projects, Ross explained on Dec. 3, “The public sector has a critical role.”

Planning and financing tools, she indicated, are the primary means for local governments to make workforce housing available.

Ross talked of a past City Commission’s decision to allow triple the normal density of housing developments in the Rosemary District in an effort to spur creation of affordable housing. However, she continued, a density bonus is “not going to create affordability.”

City Manager Tom Barwin acknowledged the disappointment of city leaders that the bonus for the Rosemary District did not achieve the desired results.

Other proposals

Yet another recommendation Ross characterized as “super, super important” calls for the creation of an ombudsman position within the Office of Housing and Community Development, which serves the city and the county. “Somebody’s got to be tasked with overseeing [these recommendations],” Ross noted. The person would have enough responsibilities she added, that he or she should not need to be tasked with anything else.

The Office of Housing and Community Development administers state and federal housing assistance programs, including the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. The Blueprintincludes a city chart showing that in the 2017 fiscal year, the city received $477,299.14 in CDBG funds. The city used 60.56% of that — $289,054 — to acquire dwelling units for rehabilitation. Another $9,972 went into rehabilitation of single-family units.

The Blueprintpoints out, “[I]t was only in the 2016-17 cycle [when] the City began to seriously acquire properties for rehabilitation with CDBG funds. Prior to that … most of the CDBG dollars had been spent on street improvements.”

Although the latter are allowed under the CDBG program, the report notes, “general funds can be used for those purposes. CDBG funds are meant to supplement, not supplant local government investment in low income census tracts.”

Another of the 12 Blueprint recommendations is a call for promotion of infill development through allowing mixed uses.

No. 2 on the list is “Allow Accessory Dwelling Units in Single-Family Zones.” Ross referred to a “granny flat” and living space over a garage as examples.

This is an example of a ‘granny flat’ that could be used for workforce housing. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Yet another recommendation is to encourage the Legislature to cease “sweeping” Sadowski Trust Funds. The City and County of Sarasota have lost more than $30 million over the last 15 years, Ross said, because of the Legislature’s removal of money from those 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 …”

In 2017, Sweeney added, the “doc stamp” taxes generated about $292 million in affordable housing trust funds, but the legislators moved more than $130 million of that to the general revenue fund to balance the budget.

No. 4 on the Blueprint list calls for re-purposing vacant and abandoned commercial, retail and industrial properties, when appropriate, for workforce housing. (County Commissioner Charles Hines talked of such possibilities on Nov. 28, when his board heard a report on affordable housing.)

“They’re everywhere,” Ross said of such centers.

A project in St. Petersburg is underway, she noted, making use of a 60,000-square-foot grocery store that had been vacant for four years.

Another recommendation is for the reinvigoration or reconstitution of a Community Land Trust.

This is a graphic in the presentation Jaimie Ross made to the City Commission on Dec. 3. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Sarasota has such a trust, Ross noted, but “it really hasn’t been active for a while.”

As a nonprofit, she explained the trust separates land from buildings. People can move into a house on property provided by the trust, she said, “so they’re not paying for the land.”

Instead, she continued, they have a leasehold interest in the land and all the improvements to the property. When the homeowners decide to sell the house, Ross noted, a formula is used to calculate what the price should be. That ensures the home remains part of the workforce housing stock.

The report also calls for surplus city and county property to be used as the sites of affordable housing.

Ross told the commissioners that she was aware of the criticism they and the county commissioners have heard about the lack of workforce housing in the community. Nonetheless, she said, “It’s important to also note that [in] Sarasota City and County, you are leaders in many areas in affordable housing.”

For just one example, she continued, very few jurisdictions in Florida have a joint housing program, such as the Office of Housing and Community Development.

“That is a great model for the state of Florida,” Ross said.

Further, Ross commended the City Commission for “the expertise of [its] staff.”