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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 1 week ago

Officials hope to build on housing progress

City and county leaders centered affordable housing as a priority in 2020. To what extent will recently established policies bear fruit this year?

A shortage of affordable housing has long been a topic of discussion among local officials, but in 2020, both the county and the city approved a series of actions they hoped would lead to meaningful progress on the issue.

In the city, commissioners adopted a series of land use changes designed to make private construction of affordable housing easier and has $4 million set aside in a fund dedicated to the issue. In the county, commissioners identified land to be repurposed for affordable housing projects and sought to find developers willing to build those units.

Policymakers are optimistic about the prospect of sustaining momentum on affordable housing measures in 2021, though housing advocates continue to call on governments to make more significant investments. Here are some of the initiatives the city and county intend to pursue this year:

City efforts

As the city has discussed a variety of affordable housing policies during the past two years, planning staff has repeatedly emphasized that there’s no silver bullet for a problem that’s built up over the course of several decades.

Still, Planning Director Steve Cover has expressed hope the initial policy changes the city has adopted will bear fruit in the near future. The City Commission approved regulations allowing for reduced parking requirements, higher-density zoning districts and alternate design standards for affordable projects. In the Rosemary District, builders can get extra height if they incorporate affordable housing into their project.

In September, the city’s Planning Board recommended authorizing construction of accessory dwelling units by-right in four neighborhoods. That proposal will advance to the City Commission in 2021.

Cover said the impact of these policies might not be felt until the community begins to see the sorts of projects they produce. Cover is optimistic residents will be receptive to the changes, which will make it easier for officials to adopt additional — and more ambitious — measures.

“You start building up a little track record of success, then people become more and more open to trying other things,” Cover said.

There has been some criticism of the city’s approach. Mayor Hagen Brody has expressed frustration about land use policies he believes are too narrowly focused on individual properties or neighborhoods, suggesting the city should pursue more sweeping changes, particularly along major corridors, such as U.S. 41. Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity, a coalition of Sarasota churches, has been lobbying city and county officials since 2019 to set up a $15 million fund to support affordable housing that gets replenished on an annual basis. So far, the group has been unsuccessful.

William Russell, the president and CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority, said local officials had taken some good steps on affordable housing.

But he said a 2019 state law prohibiting inclusionary zoning — land use policy that requires developers to incorporate some affordable units into their projects — was a major policy setback.

As a result, he suggested the city and county should be proactive about engaging with builders to see what could get them to voluntarily build affordable housing.

“We’re going to have to figure out: What are the policy tools that we can come up with that would motivate and incentivize a developer to build a few units that would have less return on investment than they’d otherwise get?” Russell said.

Cover has emphasized that city planning staff intends to continue to present a suite of affordable housing policies to the commission for consideration.

“We have no intentions of just nibbling away at this,” Cover said. “We’ve got a series of other zoning text amendments that we’re going to be introducing, and all of these compiled together hopefully will address a major part of the affordable housing issue.”

County efforts

Just before the new year, real estate development firm O’Connor Capital Partners announced it had purchased the mall formerly known as Westfield Siesta Key.

In a news release, company leaders said they would like to add new restaurant and storefront tenants to the 435,000-square-foot mall, now called Crossings at Siesta Key. In the past, county commissioners said they wanted to see a different use for the property: affordable housing.

Before he reached his term limit in December, former County Commissioner Charles Hines singled out shopping malls as a potential new area of development for workforce housing.

He said struggling malls could bring new life to the property by redeveloping them as mixed-use sites with retail fronts and affordable housing. Commissioner Christian Ziegler said properties including Sarasota Square Mall, which is located about 6 miles south of Crossings at Siesta Key, invited reuse and redevelopment.

“Every time I go to Sarasota Square, I hate to say it, but retail’s just leaving,” Ziegler said. “There’s so much more we could be doing with those large footprints that are in the areas people want to live in already.”

Likewise, commissioners are looking to add affordable housing projects to communities in need by using county-owned land to facilitate private developments.

Commissioners hope to soon add a mixed-use affordable housing project in north Sarasota County at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Way. Although bids are still being considered, a term sheet for the site specifies that no fewer than 6 acres of the site should be used for specific needs of the neighborhood, such as a grocery store or pharmacy.

Similarly, staff identified two other county-owned parcels where affordable housing projects would be viable due to their proximity to grocery stores and public transportation.

The county already received six bids for one property, located at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail. Commissioner Al Maio expressed hopes that a smaller property at 899 School Ave. S. — located just south of Sarasota High School — could be used for teacher workforce housing.

Russell endorsed the use of public land for affordable projects, but he was critical of the county’s decision to sell the land to developers. The highest bid for the North Tamiami Trail property was $2.8 million, more than double the assessed value of the site. Russell said removing the price of land could meaningfully reduce the cost of a project, leading to increased production of affordable housing.

“You’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot by thinking you’re going to sell land to a developer you want to in turn provide affordable housing for you,” Russell said.

As the county continues to prioritize affordable housing projects, commissioners said staff should strive to find creative options to help the community grow.

“What we have to do as leaders is do a better job,” Hines said. “We have a great community, but we need some better ideas, and we need to seek those out.”

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