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House bill aimed to protect affordable housing, officials say

Posted on Friday, December 1, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a News-Gazette series on affordable housing in Osceola County.
By Rachel Christian
Staff Writer
In the last 25 years, nearly $2 billion in affordable housing trust funds have been diverted for other uses by Florida legislators, according to a Florida Housing Coalition report.
Mary Downey, executive director of the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee, said she finds the practice “very worrisome.”
“There is obviously a shortage of affordable housing across Florida,” said Downey, whose organization works directly with homeless and low-income individuals in Osceola County. “The idea that money is intentionally being taken away from this year after year is disturbing.”
Last month, Gov. Rick Scott proposed sweeping $91.8 million from the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund into the General Revenue Fund. If the legislature agrees with him in March when the budget is finalized, it will be the 17th time since 1992 that millions of dollars intended to lower housing costs in Florida will instead be used for other projects and tax breaks.
The Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund was created 25 years ago as a bi-partisan response to Florida’s fast paced growth. It put a small surcharge on every real estate transaction to spur development of workforce housing, assist first-time homeowners with down payments and encourage affordable rental housing.
The trust fund generates millions every year. But according to a 2017 report by Jaimie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, the housing trust funds have collected nearly $6 billion since its creation, and a third of that money, or nearly $2 billion, was swept for use as general revenue.
The funds are being diverted at a time when wages are no longer keeping pace with housing costs, especially in Central Florida. According to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Metro Orlando area – which includes Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties – ranked behind only Las Vegas and Los Angeles for its lack of housing options for very low-income residents. Florida’s rental shortage for low earners rose by more than 70 percent, from 254,869 units in 2000 to 441,565 by 2015, according to the coalition.
“By diverting this money, we’re perpetuating a self-made crisis,” aid Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa), who recently proposed a bill for the upcoming session that would bar legislators from dipping into housing trust funds. “They’re balancing the state budget on the back of affordable housing.”
The bill introduced by Rep. Shaw (HB 191) quickly received support from Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican from Naples, who soon filed a Senate version of the bill (SB 874).
Shaw said he has received positive feedback on the bill, but also acknowledged that other legislators may not be supportive of the measure.
“It has been used to plug very large holes in the budget for years, and everyone is used to having that money to essentially rob Peter to pay Paul,” Shaw said. “They may not be happy about having to find the money elsewhere, but they have to.”
Osceola County government officials said extra money for housing would be a boon to the community.
“It would be a great thing to see this bill pass,” said Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington. “It would greatly increase the number of opportunities we would have to create more affordable housing here.”