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Jon Thaxton
Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 5 months ago

Officials grapple with affordable housing shortage

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Sarasota has struggled to create an adequate supply of affordable housing. Can policy changes effectively address this issue?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Sarasota leaders know that affordable housing is a major issue.

Elected officials have focused on affordable housing during their campaigns. The city and county commissions have devoted time to discussing policy options for increasing the supply of “workforce housing,” trying to ensure people can afford to live in the community where they work.

As part of that effort, earlier this year, the city and county jointly hired the Florida Housing Coalition to produce an action plan on affordable housing. The Blueprint for Workforce Housing, completed this month, states the city and county “have done excellent work to identify policies that will encourage workforce housing development,” commending staff members for their knowledge of the tools available for addressing affordable housing challenges.

And yet, the report contains statistics that speak to a major shortage of affordable housing citywide and countywide.

In the county, 42% of all households spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing. Among those living in the city and making below 80% of the area median income, $52,796 for households, 49% of renters and 42% of homeowners are dedicating more than half of their income to housing.

Although affordable housing has been an identified priority for Sarasota officials for years, the problem is getting worse. Increases in housing prices are outpacing wage growth. Since 2012, the price of a single-family home in Sarasota has gone up about 40%. The median household income in the city has grown by less than 7% over that same period.

If the city and county know affordable housing is a problem — and know the options available to address that problem — why hasn’t Sarasota seen more progress on this issue? Is there reason to believe meaningful gains can be made in the near future?

Imperfect solutions

Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, is encouraged about Sarasota’s prospects for addressing the issue.

Ross has dealt with communities that didn’t know where to begin when trying to create affordable housing. That wasn’t the case in Sarasota, where both staff members and planning documents displayed a knowledge of best practices for encouraging the development of affordable uses.

The problem for Sarasota, Ross said, was follow-through.

“We found, through looking at actual land-use issues and through stakeholder interviews, that the tools that in fact were in place were sometimes not enforced,” Ross said.

There are a number of examples of cases where Sarasota leaders have taken action hoping to create affordable housing but failed to get the desired results.

The county has an Affordable Housing Overlay District, in which developers must provide 15% of housing units at an affordable price. The problem with that, Ross said, is the units only have to be affordable for five years.

The city created a Rosemary Residential Overlay District that allowed developers to build projects with three times the density previously allowed in the neighborhood. Although developers were quick to build under those regulations, there was no requirement for affordability. Residents and officials have complained about how the new housing units fail to fill the city’s need for workforce housing.

Policies like these reflect Sarasota officials’ knowledge of inclusionary zoning, an important principle that ties the development of affordable housing to the construction of market-rate units. Ross said the city and county have failed to see significant progress on affordable housing not because they haven’t done anything, but because the regulations they crafted weren’t forceful enough.

There’s no one solution for creating affordable housing, but Ross said part of an effective strategy is making sure officials treat housing as an essential function of local government. That philosophy should inform all of their decision-making, Ross said, which can help break the pattern of ineffectual policies.

“It takes a true understanding of affordable housing as a community asset,” Ross said. “It’s infrastructure you need that’s in the best interest of the community.”

Increased demand

Jon Thaxton has been working to address Sarasota’s affordable housing issue for more than three decades. He believes the present might represent the best opportunity to make meaningful progress.

Thaxton, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s senior vice president for community investment, helped bring the city and county together to commission the Blueprint for Workforce Housing. Encouraged by the progress made on homelessness with the help of the coalition, Thaxton hoped similar gains could be achieved for affordable housing.

Like others, he saw a pressing need to reduce the gap between the supply and demand for affordable housing in Sarasota.

“The divide is oceanic,” Thaxton said. “It’s one of the greatest divides of any (metropolitan statistical area) in the United States.”

The effects of that divide are far-reaching. In the past, Thaxton said, those who advocated for the creation of affordable housing generally approached it morally: People should be able to reasonably find a place to live.

Now, it’s become an even broader economic necessity. Because of a shortage of available housing units, businesses are struggling to find workers who can afford to live in proximity to the available jobs. The Florida Housing Coalition report says the average wages in Sarasota’s five largest industries aren’t enough to pay for a median-priced home on a sustainable budget.

“The chambers of commerce and the economic development corporations in Sarasota County have listed affordable housing as the No. 1 impediment to diversifying Sarasota’s economy,” Thaxton said.

Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, affirmed the organization’s members have recently experienced issues related to affordable housing.

“It’s no longer conjecture or theory that a lack of attainable housing places a burden on the economic prosperity of the community,” Cooper said. “We get that now.”

Committed to change?

The Florida Housing Coalition report outlines changes that could encourage the development of more affordable housing.

Zoning can be changed to allow greater diversity of housing units, for multifamily projects are generally more affordable. Because most of Sarasota’s housing supply is single-family homes, accessory dwelling units should be allowed in neighborhoods, the report says.

Officials should continue to pursue density increases, the report states, and make sure those density increases are tied to the construction of long-term affordable housing units. Zoning codes should encourage developers to repurpose old commercial and industrial properties for housing, when appropriate.

Local governments should manage surplus lands to maximize opportunities for building more workforce housing. Officials should lobby the state Legislature to fully fund its affordable housing trust. The city and county can develop a program to assist the housing needs of their own employees.

There’s no shortage of advice in the document. The question is whether the city and county are interested in following through on the plan the Florida Housing Coalition has outlined. The city is scheduled to discuss the report Dec. 3, and the county will consider it at a future meeting.

The report identifies neighborhood opposition as a potential obstacle. Recently, city neighborhood leaders expressed opposition to the city’s form-based code, in part because it encouraged the development of attached and multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods.

Ross said staff members should be equipped to present an argument in favor of affordable housing, building an active base of support and addressing residents’ concerns about the effects of affordable housing on their neighborhood. Ross hoped the philosophical approach she recommended would allow officials to prioritize affordable housing over fears about changes to existing neighborhoods.

“If there’s really a buy-in and an understanding that this workforce housing is a benefit to everybody in the community — including those folks who are objecting to it — then there’s a way for working it out where everyone wins,” Ross said.

Whether it’s residents opposing new housing units or developers lobbying for relaxed regulations, Thaxton warned against officials pursuing only the most politically expedient strategies for creating affordable housing.

“It all has to happen in concert,” Thaxton said. “In isolation, none of these solutions work.

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