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Our view: How codes hurt the poor

  • Sarasota
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Sarasota entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff has spent much of the past two decades here buying and refurbishing old apartments and hotels in the city to fill a big vacuum — affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.

They’re not glitzy places. They can’t be if they’re to be affordable. But Vengroff does what he thinks is right to make them livable and affordable.

If anything, you could say Vengroff has done as much, probably more, as anyone to address the one issue that has worn so many numb in this city — homelessness.

And all along the way, Vengroff has encountered that ever-present blob that inhibits, stifles and often prevents anyone from providing what is regarded as affordable housing — regulations.

Read Vengroff’s letter in the accompanying box to Michael Bush, owner of Home Resource on Central Avenue in the Rosemary District. Bush was asking how to solve Sarasota’s homeless problem.

In his response, Vengroff uses an excerpt from a book one of his property managers, Tobin Page, has written. Page shows the regulatory labyrinth he has encountered trying to convert an old hotel to residential use. It’s classic regulatory bureaucracy.

Far more than that, it’s an explicit illustration of how people’s good intentions for others’ well-being end up hurting those who need help the most.

In Page’s memo, you can clearly see some of the absurdity he has encountered — one example: the requirement for so many parking spaces even though so few of the tenants have cars and can’t afford them.

As you read, you can sense how Page’s frustration with city government and its bureaucratic requirements has turned to cynicism, if not disdain. It’s understandable.

But on the adjoining page, 9A, Tim Lichet, director of the Neighborhood and Development Services, explains his department is just enforcing what is required by law. Don’t shoot the messenger, he’s saying; we’re just doing our job.

Indeed, Litchet and his staff are not the problem. The lawmakers are.

Vengroff makes that point a little differently in a later email to Litchet:

… “[T]he building department in Sarasota has been very helpful in trying to fast-track our project … The reason for my initial email was not to complain about the current project but to make everyone aware of the hurdles that must be overcome.

“My hope is to show other investors how to purchase motels and turn them into apartments that people can afford. Investors would be more likely to come on board if we can eliminate some of the requirements …

“If the city and county could simplify the procedure,” Vengroff writes, “we could eliminate 1/3 of the old hotel rooms that cater to drugs and prostitution and provide homes for families down on their luck.”

Regulations are always intended to solve a market problem or do good. What most people refuse to accept, however, is free enterprise is the best, most humane and most efficient regulator of all.

How the city exacerbates homelessness
The homeless problem in Sarasota is hard to solve. The building department is working with us to fast track the conversion of former hotel rooms into studio apartments, but its hands are tied because of all the rules and regulations.

We have done conversions of hotels to studio apartments in other communities, and instead of going through 18 departments like Sarasota, they simply said thank you for getting it done.

In street speak, they administratively waived all the nonsense.

The attached is an excerpt from a book written by our property manager describing some of the frustrations we experience while working with the city we love.


Here’s another stupid story.

See if you can spot the similarities.

Four months have passed since I arrived at the Overlook. It’s now January.

Out of 121 apartments, I still only have 64 that have been made available for rent. The remaining apartments are still red tagged by the city of Sarasota.

No work has been done on them, they lie empty while we wrestle with the intractable bureaucracy of the city to surmount the simple task of changing the official appellation of this 30-year-old building from the previous “Hotel” to the new “Apartments.”

You’d think that would be easy enough, wouldn’t you?

The building has been here in operation for 30 years. Every record has been scrupulously kept.
We’re not building a new building or trying to cover wetlands with concrete. Just change from one name to the other.

The amount of money the city of Sarasota generates to support its bloated bureaucracy is pretty large and supplemented by property taxes, so you would think the homeowners and business owners should have a say on who sets this machine running every year, correct?

The idea being that government for the people and by the people shall not perish from the earth, correct?
A further idea being that government should attract business opportunities, which clean up blight and restore the faith of the people it serves, rather than repel them by stinging costs of doing business here, correct?

It would seem from my observations that they don’t understand those basic principles.

In the private sector, if this were a business, if I proposed a duplication of scrutiny like this, by the same departments, it would be called waste, or churn, trying to boost my budget to justify the size of my administration …

Doesn’t seem to work that way in the city of Sarasota.

First, there was an enormous list of requirements: for example, two parking spaces per apartment.

Um, this is affordable housing for working class folks and 40% of it (give or take) is used for the agency referrals to help folks in a bind.

They don’t have cars. Can’t afford them, can’t afford the insurance, can’t afford the gas, can’t afford the license and registration fees. Don’t have the money.

We have 134 spaces; 60 or so units rented and 25 of the tenants have cars.

After four months of paid experts repeating the same thing over and over, we finally whittled the list down to 18 absolute must-haves for the city of Sarasota to change for a hotel to an apartment complex.

Thus far, with fees for experts in each of the 18 fields, we’ve spent ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Give or take.

Below is an email from my friend on the subject showing the final shortened list of things they’ve had us pay to support their bloated administration. (I particularly like the “proposed hookup to city and sewer mains.” This place has been here for 30 years. What do they think was being used all that time? An outhouse with a pump handle?)


P.S. I guess the homeless families can wait, can’t they?

P.P.S. Next project is now in Bradenton. Their response when asked the same question: It’s a hotel already? Eh. Go ahead. No skin off our nose.

The attached are some of the hoops the city of Sarasota requires for the transformation of a hotel to efficiency apartments:

The categories include:

• Parking

• Elevations of refuse containers

• Bicycle parking

• Landscape plan

• Tree removal

• Easement for future bus enclosure

• Backflow preventer

• Plan to hook up to city water (which was done years ago)

• Plan for hook up to city sewer (which was done years ago)

• Capacity of refuse containers

• Recycling plan

• Engineer plans

• Survey

• Landscape architect plan

• Plan for utilities: electric, telephone, gas, cable ...

• Tree protection comments

• Neighborhood services meetings requiring sign off from:

• Police

• Fire department

• Transportation department

• School board

The soft costs for engineering, architect and legal amount to about $100,000. Per hotel conversion.
Neighboring communities have not required most of the above.



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