What is life like in this Miami affordable housing building?

Clifford Johnson, 61, was homeless. Now the Liberty City native has rebuilt his life and is living at the Hampton Village Apartments in Brownsville, Florida.

Clifford Johnson, 61, was homeless. Now the Liberty City native has rebuilt his life and is living at the Hampton Village Apartments in Brownsville, Florida.

The number of low-wage jobs in Florida is growing, and so is the population of low-wage workers. According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the employment projection for 2018-2026 shows an increase in 144,493 jobs, most of them in low-wage employment, which would result in an additional demand of an estimated 40,000 low-income renters over the next eight years.

In order to support local and state affordable housing programs through a fee on real estate transactions, the William F. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act was adopted in 1992, creating two trust funds for housing. But since around 2003, the funds have been routinely raided by Tallahassee lawmakers for other uses like hurricane recovery and general funding. From 2008 to 2017, the Sadowski funds generated $1.9 billion, but only $578.5 million of that money went to housing.

In January, when Gov. Ron DeSantis filed his proposed 2019-20 budget in advance of the Florida legislative session, affordable housing advocates were hopeful. Every dollar of the $350 million allocated from the Sadowski funds was earmarked for affordable housing.

But when DeSantis signed the budget into law on June 21, he did not veto a line item that removed $125 million of the affordable housing money — the total had been reduced to $325 million already — and swept it into the “general revenue” fund to be used for unspecified programs across the state. Now, $115 million — the bulk of this year’s Sadowski allocation — will go toward rebuilding efforts for counties affected by Hurricane Michael. The remaining $85 million will be go toward affordable housing developers and funds for individual counties’ specific needs like revamping units for the disabled or helping first-time home buyers.

In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, nearly three quarters (73%) said the state should dedicate 100% of the money in the Sadowski funds to affordable housing instead of sweeping it for other uses.

When asked what the state can do to help ease the affordable housing crisis in Florida, many recommended subsidies for workforce housing, incentives for developers to build more affordable housing or using public land to sell or lease to developers who commit to building it.

Others took a bolder approach like Annie Lord, the executive director of advocacy group Miami Homes For All, who insisted that the governor veto any bill that spends Sadowski dollars on anything other than affordable housing. Some suggested the state restore all the money that’s been siphoned off from the funds since the sweeping began in the early 2000s.

“The money that was diverted over the past 10 years or so could have built thousands of affordable homes for Florida’s citizens,” said Wifredo Ferrer, executive partner at the Miami law firm Holland & Knight.

He added that other local projects like tax rebates for developers and more public transit could help Floridians live within their means.

Barron Channer, CEO of the Woodwater Group, suggested a range of ideas, such as raising the statewide minimum wage, allowing companies to build employee housing and exploring innovative building methods including modular multifamily housing.

“Think of school districts being able to use their land for housing to attract or retain teachers,” he said. “There are numerous other ways for the state to help.”

In addition to the sweeping of the Sadowski funds, the governor also signed a bill this summer that prevents local governments from requiring that developers include affordable housing in their projects unless they got compensation from the government.

Of the 50 Influencers, a majority (58%) said they do not support this new law.

They said by preempting local governments, the state removed one of the most powerful tools to help build affordable housing. Affordable housing is a localized issue, they said, and decisions need to be made by governments close to the communities.

“Local decision makers need to know that they can address the needs of their constituents without being undercut by Tallahassee,” said AARP state director Jeff Johnson.

Xavier Cortada, an art professor at the University of Miami, said letting local leaders develop public policy is the best way to integrate community building with affordable living.

Good local leadership “reduces the kind of economic segregation and community alienation that in time can make cities unattractive to all who live there,” he said.

Victoria Kadan, executive director of Bradenton medical nonprofit We Care Manatee, said the new law “exacerbates an already big problem and helps to widen the housing gap between the haves and have nots.”

“It will accelerate [affordable housing issues] to a crisis level,” she said.

Those who did support the legislation (21%) said imposing requirements is the wrong way to address affordable housing because of the way it can distort the market or drive up costs. Instead, the state should encourage affordable housing in other ways.

“The best way to increase the amount of affordable housing is by lowering upfront costs, reducing bureaucratic red tape and having local governments become transparent in how they conduct business,” said Bob McClure, president of the James Madison Institute, a free-market think tank based in Tallahassee.

We asked the Influencers how well Florida officials are doing in focusing on policy solutions that address the needs of all state residents.

Excellent: 12%

Good: 40%

Fair: 40%

Poor: 8%

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.

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