There's money to help Florida's housing market, but lawmakers disagree on where to spend it

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's sputtering housing market has produced one silver lining: enough home sales to generate $98 million in tax revenue for an affordable housing account created to repair foreclosed homes and place more middle- and low-income families into houses.

But there's one problem: Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House want to sweep the money into the general revenue fund to balance the state budget. On Thursday, the Senate voted to restore $29.6 million of the money into the affordable housing account.

Meanwhile, in another area of the budget, legislators are using $75 million from the general revenue fund for economic development.

It's a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, say affordable housing advocates. They are trying to persuade lawmakers to restore the cuts to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program, which offers housing assistance through local governments to people whose income is 80 percent of the median income.

"If the Legislature's priority is creating jobs, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better way than to keep this intact,'' said Jaimie Ross of the Sadowski Housing Coalition, an affordable housing advocacy organization. "Housing equals jobs."

If the money were left in the affordable housing trust fund, local community development groups say it could create 7,500 jobs for construction contractors to rehabilitate thousands of foreclosed homes, clean up the blighted property in hundreds of neighborhoods and provide mortgage assistance to low-income homeowners. The impact would be immediate, say community development officials.

Local governments in the Tampa Bay region could draw down more federal money and use it to occupy foreclosed homes, expand the affordable lending programs and enroll more new homeowners in the pre-purchase program, said Gregg Schwartz, president of the Tampa Bay Community Development Corp.

Pasco County could help several hundred homeowners on its waiting list, particularly those insured by Citizens Property Insurance, who need new roofs to keep their insurance, said George Romagnoli, community development manager for the county.

Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, head of the House budget committee in charge of the housing trust fund, said that while the SHIP program "is a worthy program, there are difficult choices. In this real estate environment, do we spend money on education and health care or housing?''

Scott, who has recommended taking tax revenues raised for dozens of special programs from trust funds into the general budget, said Thursday that while he wants jobs, he is not persuaded that the housing trust fund is the best approach.

"We've got to make choices,'' he said. "My belief is what we're doing is allocating the money in the right places.."

Ross said the choice should be about jobs.

"All those folks that were doing new construction can now be doing rehab, drywall, roofs, whatever,'' she said. "They don't lose their house because they have a job."

Times/Herald staff writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.

There's money to help Florida's housing market, but lawmakers disagree on where to spend it 02/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 24, 2012 8:40am]

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