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Lawmakers visit shelters, affordable housing on minibus tour

CLEARWATER

Walmart worker Melissa McComish never dreamed she could afford to own a home.

But with the help of a state trust for low-income housing, the Clearwater single mom with two children obtained a no-interest loan and bought a three-bedroom house with a back yard.

"It's the biggest blessing ever," said McComish, 46, adding that she used to be homeless. "I never could have gotten here without help."

Two state lawmakers and several legislative aides heard that story and more Tuesday and Wednesday as affordable housing advocates took them on minibus tours of Pinellas County.

The Low-Income Housing Leadership Network organized the tours to showcase properties built with money from the state's Sadowski trust, an affordable housing fund that lawmakers have raided the past four years to pay for other things.

The effort is a response to lawmakers who say they hesitated to allocate money to the state's low-income housing funds because they didn't know how the money was being spent.

Only two aides showed up on Tuesday's tour of north Pinellas County, despite months of emails and invitations. But state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, and two other aides attended Wednesday's tour of south Pinellas.

At issue is the state's Sadowski trust, which created in 2002 a pot of money that was supposed to be reserved only for affordable housing. The Legislature hasn't used the full fund for its intended purpose since 2008.

The trust, which in part administers money through a program known as SHIP, can help with things like down payment assistance so low-income families can move into their own homes. It also can help with emergency home repairs that enable elderly people to remain independent rather than go into nursing homes.

It also helps fund programs for homeless people and veterans.

Housing advocates were hopeful that the tours could revive support for the Sadowski funds by impressing lawmakers with the quality of the affordable housing projects, which are organized through local government and community groups.

Among other stops, the tours visited homes built by Habitat for Humanity, apartments constructed with low-income tax credits and Homeless Emergency Project dormitories, which house veterans.

Bobby Rannazzisi, 46, an Army veteran formerly stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is at the Clearwater Homeless Emergency Project recovering from a leg infection that spread throughout his body.

He's one of eight roommates in a four-bedroom apartment with leather couches and a spacious, clean kitchen.

The veterans don't pay rent, which enables them to save money and strike out on their own so the project can help more people, said Zak White, director of programs.

"The minute we have openings, we always have families and individuals lined up," he said, adding that a $425,000 Sadowski Grant helped make the project possible.

So did the tour achieve its purpose? Are lawmakers headed into 2014 ready to fund affordable housing?

It was hard to tell after Wednesday's tour, when Republican Brandes and Democrat Dudley debated their opposing views during the time between stops.

Brandes later said the tour only helped solidify his previous opinions, including that state money for low-income housing should focus on the voucher program — which allows people to rent apartments on the open market.

Citing a case he saw Wednesday in which Sadowski funds enabled a family to get their home retrofitted to accommodate a wheelchair, Brandes said he also favors programs that make existing homes livable for people with disabilities.

Dudley said he was shocked by some of Brandes' arguments, which seemed to ignore the benefits of programs they saw on the tour.

"There are so many situations ... like with returning veterans," he said. "Do we want them to be far-flung and who knows where? Or is it useful for them to live in a dedicated place with people with like experiences?"

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

Lawmakers visit shelters, affordable housing on minibus tour 11/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 12:10pm]
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