Af­ford­able hous­ing: Florida’s quiet cri­sis

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - VOICES & OPINION -

As hous­ing costs rise and in­comes stag­nate, the nag­ging short­age of af­ford­able hous­ing is fast be­com­ing a cri­sis. The lack of apart­ments and homes avail­able to Amer­i­cans of lowto mod­er­ate in­come is a na­tion­wide prob­lem, but South Florida feels it more acutely than all but a few metro ar­eas.

Hard­est hit are the home­less and bor­der­line poor who pose multi-lay­ered chal­lenges to pol­i­cy­mak­ers. But lack of af­ford­abil­ity— hous­ing within reach of solidly mid­dle class fam­i­lies— presents a prob­lem of an­other sort en­tirely.

Either­way, the chal­lenges are­many, the an­swers rel­a­tively few and the threats to Florida’s pros­per­ity great. And gov­ern­ment pro­grams— in Wash­ing­ton, Tal­la­has­see, county cen­ters and city halls— too of­ten fall short or, worse, are short­changed.

Tony Car­va­jal, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Florida Cham­ber Foun­da­tion, has seen the af­ford­abil­ity is­sue up close. In town­hall meet­ings across the state, he’s found the hous­ing is­sue one that never fails to come up in 8,000 en­coun­ters with Florid­i­ans.

Fac­ing the big­gest chal­lenge, he says, is the teacher, fire­fighter, young pro­fes­sional or new re­tiree whose in­come can’t keep up with rents or hous­ing costs.

“Young peo­ple mak­ing $30,000 to $60,000 can’t af­ford to live where they work,” he said.

They surely can’t af­ford what Florida de­vel­op­ers are build­ing at break­neck speed. The cranes that crowd the South Florida sky­lines are not erect­ing hous­ing for pub­lic service pro­fes­sion­als or mid­dlein­come fam­i­lies.

And when they have no af­ford­able place to live, th­ese vi­tal mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties go else­where.

A study con­ducted by theUniver­sity of Florida’s Shim­berg Cen­ter out­lined the scope of the hous­ing prob­lem.

In 2013, 715,000 Florid­i­ans spent more than 40 per­cent of their in­come on hous­ing. The most cur­rent fig­ure is far­worse: 911,000 house­holds spent 50 per­cent or more on hous­ing in 2016.

If thatwere not a gloomy enough pic­ture, con­sider this: Florida has the third high­est num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in shel­ters or on the street, with 33,599, ac­cord­ing to the Flori­daHous­ing Coali­tion.

None of this is to say so­ci­ety has turned its back on the hous­ing prob­lem. The num­ber and va­ri­ety of fed­eral, state and lo­cal pro­grams is stun­ning. They range from out­right grants to so­phis­ti­cated tax in­cen­tives.

Some use tax breaks to en­cour­age con­struc­tion of low-in­come rentals. Some de­mand set-asides from­builders seek­ing ap­proval for new sub­di­vi­sions. Some grant vouch­ers di­rectly to the renter.

De­spite all the ef­fort and in­no­va­tion, the prob­lem per­sists and keeps grow­ing, in part be­cause gov­ern­ment too eas­ily loses its ar­dor to fund pro­grams at the needed level.

And the to­tal pot of money avail­able for af­ford­able hous­ing just doesn’t keep up with the need.

One of the more in­no­va­tive pro­grams to fill that pot­was Florida’s Sad­owski Act of 1992. It­was an imag­i­na­tive ef­fort to gen­er­ate money for af­ford­able hous­ing by cre­at­ing a trust fund solely for hous­ing in Florida’s cities.

It tied growth in real es­tate sales to gen­er­a­tion of money for hous­ing. It did that by im­pos­ing a small levy on the doc­u­men­tary stamp tax paid on ev­ery real es­tate pur­chase doc­u­ment.

Ev­ery­body loved its logic— un­til they didn’t. In 2007, the leg­is­la­ture im­posed a cap on the trust fund so it could use­money gen­er­ated for the hous­ing trust for other needs. The cap­was lifted af­ter the real es­tate bust in 2008.

But the ap­petite for loose change never stopped. The Se­nate and theHouse this year de­bated how­much they­wanted to take fromthe trust fund, which gen­er­ated $292 mil­lion in 2016. TheHouse andGov. Scottwanted to grab $224 mil­lion, the Se­nate a mere $129.6 mil­lion. They com­pro­mised on $154.4 mil­lion.

That’s like steal­ing money fromthe poor box and is just one of the­ways af­ford­able hous­ing gets cheated.

An­other is what Palm Beach County re­cently dis­cov­ered in a re­view of itswellinten­tioned hous­ing pro­gram. It re­quired builders to set aside a small num­ber of homes for mod­est-in­come buy­ers in new de­vel­op­ments. Good idea. But in­11years of the pol­icy’s ex­is­tence, no sin­gle-fam­ily homes have been built for low-in­come buy­ers.

InWash­ing­ton, mean­while, Pres­i­dent Trump is talk­ing about clos­ing down com­mu­nity block grants, which fi­nance the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s most am­bi­tious hous­ing pro­gram, HOME. The loss­would be dev­as­tat­ing, ac­cord­ing to Jaime Ross, CEO of the Flori­daHous­ing Coali­tion.“We have no con­trol over that. Allwe can do is hope,” she said.

It will take more than hope to get past this prob­lem.

First it needs re­solve, re­solve from­gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy­mak­ers that this ranks high on the list of im­por­tant is­sues, re­solve to strictly en­force ex­ist­ing poli­cies and re­solve to come up with new ones.

Above all, it re­quires politi­cians to keep their hands off money pledged to af­ford­able hous­ing. With­out a re­spectably housed mid­dle-class, Florida faces a dreary fu­ture.

Editorials are the opin­ion of the Sun Sentinel Edi­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Edi­to­rial Board con­sists of Edi­to­rial Page Edi­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, An­drewAbram­son, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Edi­tor-in-ChiefHoward Saltz.

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