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County asks staff to tighten up workforce housing loopholes

Sarasota County's half dwelling unit density ordinance has yet to produce tangible results, so commissioners are directing staff to review and suggest refinements.

County Commissioner Christian Ziegler: "The only thing you can do west of the interstate is go taller." (File photo)
County Commissioner Christian Ziegler: "The only thing you can do west of the interstate is go taller." (File photo)
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What began as a requested board assignment by Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert morphed into an unscheduled discussion recently about affordable housing intentions gone awry.

As the final weeks of Chair Alan Maio’s tenure on the County Commission approach, at the Aug. 30 commission meeting Detert brought up what she described as his signature piece of service over his eight years on the board — an innovative density formula designed to help facilitate lower-cost housing, particularly in urban corridors west of Interstate 75.

Adopted as a strategy in 2019, the policy allows residential units of 750 square feet or less to count as one-half unit for density purposes in multifamily development. Although several projects that meet that criteria are in the early planning stages, the tangible results to date have failed to achieve the goal.

Detert’s request for a board assignment to review the ordinance language in order to tighten up requirements intended to incentivize density and achieve affordability morphed into a deeper, discussion about market forces, supply and demand and the tightrope that separates the public’s desire for workforce housing and resistance to density necessary to achieve it.

“The first things that came out of the box were a shock to us,” Detert said. “The ones that are going up are not what we envisioned. I would hope that you would support a board assignment where we review our half-dwelling unit policies and see what impact the current language has on housing affordability and how can we tighten it up.”

Half-dwelling unit credit is applied to rental properties up to 750 square feet, the intent to incentivize entry-level workforce housing. Instead, Detert said developers are quoting rents of $1,900 to $2,300 a month for the half units.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who will be rotating off the board along with Maio this fall, said several developments in the planning pipeline demonstrate progress toward the affordability goal, and that legislation does take several years to manifest itself in demonstrative fashion. He said he supports Detert’s board assignment, providing the intent is to not eliminate the incentive altogether.

“I'm aware of a number of projects that are in design right now that are really excited about being able to do some studio-type of apartments over commercial development,” Ziegler said. “There are some overlays that we've done where we’ve increased density to 25 units per acre to facilitate that, and I've seen some preliminary designs. I think there's going to be a lot more of that coming online.”


Wider, taller, or both?

Prior to reaching consensus on the board assignment in the absence of Commissioner Mike Moran, Maio and Ziegler — wanting to take the opportunity to ensure the program remains in place after their tenures end — expanded on the subject and offered a reality check of the challenges of imposing housing restrictions on a free market.

Maio recalled public resistance to the half-dwelling unit credit concept, saying commissioners were “chewed up” for an idea that would double the population of the county.

“We did things very deliberately,” he said. “It only applies in multifamily districts. We recently added it to mixed-use, where somebody wants to put it on top of a strip center where it's appropriate and follows all the mixed use guidelines. We are desperate in this community — that’s not an exaggeration — desperate for workforce housing. … This is a place young people can land for the first time.”

Ziegler went a step further, opining about those who resist new construction and greater density concepts while simultaneously demanding more workforce housing.

“The real discussion would be how do you get affordable housing?" Ziegler said. "You get it through supply and demand. We don't have supply. There’s a lot of demand. The price goes up. That's how the market works."

Ziegler referenced an agenda item to come later in the meeting, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s request to build up to 5,000 homes in eastern Sarasota County between Fruitville Road and University Parkway east of Lorraine Road.

“How do you address supply? Sarasota County west of the interstate is already built out,” he said. “The only thing you can do west of the interstate is go taller. No one wants to go taller. … So then the question is (if) you don't want to go taller, how do you go wider? You can't go wider west of the interstate because there's no room. You have to look at east of the interstate.

“That starts giving people some reservations in areas that they don't want to see development go wider. So how do you get affordable housing because if you don't want to go taller, and you don't want to go wider, we’re not going to get more supply here. That's the real honest debate that's going on and as a commission, we have to decide how to navigate of both.”

The county is going "wider," the commissioners approving transmitting to the state SMR’s request to amend the comprehensive plan to allow for the development of 4,120 acres. As for going taller, Maio referenced Sarasota Square Mall as a target of redevelopment west of the interstate.

“There are people looking at doing just that when they come in and want to make it a mixed-use development and put a five- or six story-building in the middle of it surrounded by commercial and multifamily,” he said. "People will still come out and push back on that. I would ask them to please take a breath because what better place for some of this stuff?”

In the end, commissioners agreed with Detert’s board assignment proposal, providing it only offers a review and recommendations for improving the county’s affordable housing strategies rather than eliminating them entirely.

“Does the language we have accomplish that for us or does it not and should we make a change?” Detert said. "Nobody's talking about eliminating the good idea that we started out out with.”



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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