A coalition of churches is leading the charge for more ambitious affordable housing policies in Sarasota.
Just past midnight early Tuesday morning, more than two dozen members of Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity remained in attendance at the commission chambers at City Hall.
The group had dwindled since the evening session of the City Commission meeting began more than six hours earlier, but a dedicated faction stuck around through lengthy discussions of topics including hotel zoning, transit analysis and street design. Their presence at the end of a marathon session was a sign of SURE’s dedication to the last item on the agenda: affordable housing.
SURE is a coalition of 19 churches in Sarasota County that advocates for a more just community. Each year, the constituent congregations meet to discuss the most pressing issues members are facing in hopes of pursuing solutions. In the past, their chosen causes have included mental health, criminal justice, local hiring and public transportation.
For the past three years, SURE’s priorities have included support for increased affordable housing. As the group has dug into the topic, it’s proven to be a particularly challenging issue to address.
“There’s a list of initiatives we’ve undertaken that we have really made successful change on,” said the Rev. Wayne Farrell of St. Boniface Episcopal Church. “This is probably the toughest.”
Recently, SURE has focused its attention on a specific policy it believes would make a significant contribution to the local supply of affordable housing. The group appeared at Monday’s commission meeting to encourage the city to create a housing opportunity fund with a dedicated source of local revenue. SURE intends to make a similar request to the County Commission.
The proposal would come at a cost. SURE recommended the city invest $5 million into the housing fund and the county $10 million. The group realizes that’s a lot of money, but it argues it would pay dividends. According to the presentation at Monday’s meeting, similar funds in other communities have leveraged an average of $8 toward affordable housing for every $1 of local funding.
Farrell applauded the steps local governments have taken to adjust regulatory policies in hopes of encouraging more affordable housing, but SURE thinks a bigger step is needed to get private developers to build attainable residential units.
“The thing that makes this piece kind of a third rail is that it takes revenue,” Farrell said. “That’s where we’re looking for courage from our elected leaders.”
The Rev. Keturah Pittman of the Greater Hurst Chapel AME Church knows the first questions officials will ask is about where the money would come from. The Florida Housing Coalition recently prepared a Blueprint for Workforce Housing with recommendations for how to address the issue in the city and county. The document recommended establishing a housing fund and suggested strategies for complementing state and federal funding with local money.
For now, SURE isn’t making specific recommendations on how to pay. It wants both commissions to direct staff to investigate options for funding. The group is optimistic officials will be able to find a sustainable source of local money that can be used to establish more housing options for Sarasota residents.
“We’re not looking for band-aid support for one year,” Pittman said. “It has to be ongoing.”
Supply and demand
Pittman said she hoped local governments could build a fund to help take action before reaching a point of crisis on housing. Some housing advocates say the crisis is already here.
According to 2017 Census data, 49.8% of rental households in Sarasota County are spending 30% or more of income on rent and utilities. A 2017 county report said 40% of all Sarasota households are cost-burdened. For households making less than $50,000 a year, that rate increases to 73%. More than 75,000 of county households are cost-burdened, a number projected to rise to nearly 100,000 by 2040.
SURE leaders lend a personal perspective to the statistics. The Rev. Ryan McBride of 12 Springs Church said at least a third of his parishioners would benefit from an increase in the affordable housing supply in Sarasota.
At the City Commission meeting, he shared a story about one man who was considering moving into his van because he couldn’t find affordable housing near his work. Another man splits a small apartment, which rents for $1,000 per month, because he can’t afford to live alone on a full-time salary. A third person pays $750 per month to live in an apartment that had been converted from a hotel room; he struggled to find a better place to live in a similar price range.
These numbers and stories led to a simple conclusion: The current strategies for creating affordable housing weren’t working. McBride said private developers have little incentive to build attainable units and won’t fix the problem on their own.
Pittman pointed to other successful models in nearby municipalities, like St. Petersburg. She said the city’s contribution alone could help produce 500 housing units each year. Local funds, SURE leaders said, can be used to offset private development costs. That money can also help secure other public funding; some state and federal grants are more likely to go toward projects where local dollars are already available.
That’s why SURE wants to create a dedicated source of income for a housing fund, so local governments are well positioned to react to opportunities as they arise.
“Affordable housing really shouldn’t depend on a surplus in the budget or a sudden increase of money here and there,” McBride said. “In lean years, when there’s not an available surplus, housing developments are often needed most in those moments.”
City Commissioner Hagen Brody, who placed the item on Monday’s agenda, thinks the city is well-positioned to respond to SURE’s priorities.
He said the city already has an affordable housing trust fund, created in 2004 to gather revenue from an overlay district that is no longer in effect. He said he personally wanted to learn more about how the city has used that fund — and could use that fund in the future, should the commission show an interest in pursuing SURE’s recommendations.
“We have actually a lot of the pieces in place that they are seeking to implement, and I think their ideas are good and valid and worth our consideration,” Brody said.
The commission voted unanimously to direct staff to gather information on the existing fund and consider options for setting up a recurring source of money for the fund. The commission noted staff is already working on a report on possible affordable housing policies scheduled for presentation in late summer, though those initiatives focus primarily on land use changes rather than dedicated funding.
City Planning Director Steve Cover said those types of regulatory changes are important for creating an environment where it’s easy to build affordable housing. Still, he said an influx of funding would be helpful for producing more attainable units.
“It’s a wonderful jumpstart, if that’s the direction the commission wants to go,” Cover said.
So, after the long commission meeting, SURE secured a promise to consider the group’s recommendations, but no guarantee any funds would be allocated toward affordable housing. It’s short of where SURE leaders ultimately want to be, but right now, they see it as a sign they may be making some progress on a daunting challenge.
“We were delighted with this first step,” Farrell said.