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Town hall reveals proposals to address workforce housing crisis

Sarasota's recent success isn't equally distributed as the resulting spike in housing costs are pricing essential workers out of the city.

Janie's Garden on Lemon avenue is among Sarasota Housing Authority's recent public housing projects. (Andrew Warfield)
Janie's Garden on Lemon avenue is among Sarasota Housing Authority's recent public housing projects. (Andrew Warfield)
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She is 40 years old, earns a decent income in the health care profession and moved out of her previous apartment because she couldn’t afford the rapidly rising rent. Now in another apartment, she faces the same scenario.

The woman known to Sarasota Commissioner Hagen Brody is just one example of a growing affordable housing crisis he described as he opened a special town hall at the City Commission’s meeting chambers on June 13. Brody organized and hosted the meeting with Sarasota Planning Director Steve Cover to provide details of the city’s efforts toward incentivizing “attainable” housing and to receive public input.

Sarasota Housing Authority President and CEO William Russell was also present to discuss his agency’s work to provide public housing for those at or below the poverty level.

As the Sarasota-Bradenton area continues to grow in popularity, rising rents and home prices are forcing long-time residents out of their homes and making the city unaffordable for workforce and public service employees — and even many professionals — to live in the city they serve.

“We're a victim of our success. We've been on every list you can think of over the past couple of years, and we're no longer the best-kept secret that we were once upon a time,” Brody said. “That has benefits and drawbacks, and so this is one of those issues that success brings with it and I think it's an issue that it is really time to make some headway and some bold moves on.”

Bold moves are often accompanied by controversy, evidence by some staff-recommended text changes to the city’s comprehensive plan. They include broader administrative review powers for residential projects that include attainable, and even affordable, housing units; density incentives that include the same; and a base density concept that will permit greater density along corridors, transportation hubs, downtown and “missing middle” overlay districts where attainable housing does not exist.

Those text changes, which the City Commission in a 4-1 vote sent to Tallahassee for review during its May 16 meeting, excluded building height exemptions as an attainable housing incentive in downtown and in the urban edge. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the lone dissenting vote, citing last-minute additions to the proposed text amendment and her opposition to expanded administrative review powers that remove elected officials from the process.

During the CCNA’s city commission candidate forum on Saturday, June 11, candidates, including incumbent Ahearn-Koch, spoke against broadening administrative review powers, adding floors to residential buildings in downtown to incentivize affordable units and the base density concept. At Monday’s town hall, Brody and Cover were peppered with impassioned suggestions to mandate rent controls and new development home pricing, only to be reminded by Brody that state law prohibits most, if not all of them.

Among those restrictions is mandatory inclusionary zoning, leaving the city with few options other than to incentivize developers with an array of options to achieve those objectives.

“We are either going to take two paths. We're either going to continue down what I see as a road of exclusion and we're going to continue to see people priced out of this community … and it's going to become a more and more exclusive community,” Brody said. “Or, we're going to choose a path of inclusion and we're going to try to start taking steps to remedy the situation or at least improve it. I don't want to kid anybody that anything we're doing or saying is going to change this overnight. It's a huge issue.”


Is attainable affordable?

Just how attainable is attainable housing? By definition, attainable housing is that which is affordable to households earning between 60% and 120% of the metropolitan statistical area’s average median income. In the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton MSA, that’s more than $108,000 per year. That, Cover said, prices out a number of essential workers including food service, public safety officials and even medical professionals, not to mention it doesn’t even consider those earning a wage of less than 60% of the AMI — or $64,800 — whom Cover said the comp plan amendment is intended to benefit most.

Outside the 993 public housing units built by the Sarasota Housing Authority since 2009 and planned through 2025, that leaves few options in a city whose median rent for a two-bedroom apartment $2,500 per month.

“Let's say you have a couple with one child where you have a police officer and maybe someone who's working in a hotel or motel, and they have one child. They can't even afford a one-bedroom apartment,” Cover said. “It’s the same with two teachers with two children. They would not be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment or a three-bedroom apartment. What we're talking about as all these professions are having a really difficult time even being able to live in the city.”

Two years ago, an Affordable Housing Advisory Committee was tasked to develop a a blueprint for affordable housing. That includes:

  • Development near transportation hubs, major employment centers and mixed use development should be identified and supported with transit opportunities.
  • Adaptive reuse of former commercial buildings and shopping centers.
  • Provisions allowing for increased density for affordable housing to be granted administratively or by-right rather than requiring the developer go through a public hearing process.
  • Conditional density and other structural bonuses for long-term affordable housing as a tool to incentivize workforce housing.
  • Provide a level of predictability by allowing by-right redevelopment projects that have affordable housing component to undergo administrative review rather than go before City Commission for approval.

Other than building height bonuses for towers that include attainable housing units, the administrative review process that sidesteps approval of elected officials is the most controversial of the proposals. Cover said it’s a necessary step to lend a level of predictability to developers in the early project planning stages rather than exposing months of work and expense to the political process.

“The key word is predictability,” Cover said. “We’re not against public input on projects. We're going to be doing an evaluation of that as we're moving forward. One of the things we are looking at is for projects that have proposed attainable housing, having a community workshop so that doesn't affect the predictability or clarity of a process.

“What we don't want is it to get muddied to a point where you have no idea when the project's going to be approved because that immediately results in people saying, ‘No, I'm not doing this. I'm going to do a conventional project.’ We will be will be interacting communities, the CCNA and other groups, a great deal before (administrative review processes) eventually comes forward to the commission.”


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