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State budget cuts nearly paralyze Habitat for Humanity

John Finnerty, president of East Pasco Habitat for Humanity, said his group lost nearly a third of its $1.8 million annual budget after the state Legislature gutted an affordable-housing program for lower-income residents. “It’s darn near devastating,” he said.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

John Finnerty, president of East Pasco Habitat for Humanity, said his group lost nearly a third of its $1.8 million annual budget after the state Legislature gutted an affordable-housing program for lower-income residents. “It’s darn near devastating,” he said.

DADE CITY — Over the past year, East Pasco Habitat for Humanity has built more than 20 houses for some of the area's neediest families.

This year, the organization figures it will be lucky to build four.

East Pasco Habitat lost nearly a third of its $1.8 million annual budget after the state legislature this past session gutted the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP), one of Florida's best known affordable housing programs for lower income residents.

"It's darn near devastating," said John Finnerty, East Pasco Habitat's executive director, who laid off three employees and put on hold plans for 12 new homes.

Habitat programs in west and central Pasco lost the funding, too, though they do not depend on it to the degree that the larger East Pasco Habitat does.

Still, Central Pasco Habitat for Humanity had to stop construction on one home it had started building in Pasco Lakes Estates after learning the SHIP money would not materialize this year, said board president Danny Coleman. "It's a shame," he said.

County-run programs are at risk, too, including ones that offer lower income residents financial help for foreclosure prevention, rent payments and home repairs. Community development manager George Romagnoli says officials will piece together funding from other programs to help pay for some of those services, though foreclosure prevention for next year is shot.

The bottom line for lower income residents? There's considerably less money to go around.

• • •

But, in a move that illustrates a dilemma for housing advocates, the legislature did approve for the upcoming fiscal year a substitute program — one cheered by the real estate industry for its aim of getting people into all those empty homes around the state.

The state's new, one-year-down payment assistance program loans first-time home buyers the amount they expect to get next spring from a federal tax credit worth up to $8,000.

The recipients would pay the money back once they receive their first-time home buyer credit from the Internal Revenue Service. As counties get that money back, they can use it for their traditional lower income housing assistance programs.

One big difference from the traditional SHIP program? People who make higher incomes — singles who bring in up to $75,000 a year and married couples who make up to $150,000 — may qualify.

Counties, which will administer the money, get roughly the same share as if the money had come through the traditional SHIP program. For Pasco County, that means just more than $500,000.

And for people like John Wilkins, 61, it may mean a nice little boost to his finally becoming a homeowner. A retired law enforcement officer with the federal government, Wilkins had been renting a New Port Richey apartment before he found a home for about $75,000 in Hudson.

Granite countertops. New refrigerator. Spotless.

He was sold — but he needed a little help with his down payment and didn't want to wait until the federal tax credit comes around. His pension is modest, his 401(k) savings cashed out. "It's going to take every penny I've got," he said.

Program aims to help

Sen. Mike Fasano, who devised the new Florida Homebuyer Opportunity Program as part of his effort to keep at least some money in the housing fund, said it made sense in light of all the empty homes around the state.

Real estate agents were telling legislators that they had families trying to get in homes — but needed immediate help with the down payment, he said.

"Why should we be building any more homes when we have plenty of homes to move into?" he asked.

Finnerty said that is a question that Habitat, an organization in the business of getting lower income families into new homes, says he hears a lot these days.

"I understand their wanting to get the houses off the market," he said. "But my guys, my home­owners, can't afford a home in Wesley Chapel."

Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, said the legislature had missed the point with its new program.

"This is not a low-income program," she said. "That doesn't mean it's bad. It's just meant to stimulate home buying.

"We have so many foreclosures it's frightening. But they're not all in the affordable range."

'A sad dilemma'

The trust fund that pays for the state housing program has been dwindling in recent years as state legislators raided it for other purposes. The money comes from a portion of documentary stamp taxes, which during the real estate boom made the trust fund a juicy target.

But as the real estate market tanked, so did proceeds from documentary stamps. State officials couldn't even deliver on the funding that was already budgeted for the current year.

Pasco County, for instance, was supposed to get $3.8 million. So far, said Romagnoli, the county has received only $1.8 million.

Looking at closing massive budget deficits, the House of Representatives voted to spend nothing on housing, said Fasano.

Senators wanted to keep at least a portion of the trust — about $30 million — dedicated to housing assistance. But Fasano says he reasoned that $30 million would not go far under the traditional SHIP program.

"It was a sad dilemma we were put into," he said. "But when you're dealing with a limited amount of dollars, you've got to do your best to leverage it."

Families left in lurch

Finnerty, meanwhile, said he isn't quite sure what Habitat will be able to do for the 25 families on the waiting list. At the site of the group's small project the other day, he pointed to a foundation that had already been put down.

It was meant to be for a single-mother and her two children. Now, he said, he wasn't sure when it would get built. Until then, the family is doubling up with another family in a two-bedroom home.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Fast facts

Rehabilitation funds

Separate from the state money, Pasco County's big chunk of federal "neighborhood stabilization" funds — $19.4-million, the 17th largest allocation in the county — can be used to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed homes and demolish abandoned and substandard ones. So far, nonprofit agencies with which the county contracts have used the money to buy seven properties and rehabilitate 10. Eleven more homes are under contract. County officials are also teaming up with other area governments to apply for a second round of federal foreclosure money available for next year.

State budget cuts nearly paralyze Habitat for Humanity 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 2:40pm]
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