Editorial: No real winner in city-county battle for affordable-housing money

The fight was so misguided to begin with that the results amount to a pyrrhic victory.

Now there's a winner in a fight over federal resources between city and county affordable-housing interests. But the fight was so misguided to begin with that the results amount to a pyrrhic victory. At least the tax credits at stake will remain in Hillsborough County. And people who need help finding a home they can afford will have 144 more options once a housing project is completed just east of Interstate 75 in the community of Mango near Riverview

But in the process, the rift that has opened between Tampa and Hillsborough County poses a threat much broader than the benefits to be realized from this single, new, $25 million housing project.

Cooperation between the two is what's called for to improve the odds of landing federal resources to help close the huge local gap between supply and demand in affordable housing.

But prospects for cooperation seem to be slipping away.

The Tampa Housing Authority was set to receive the tax credits in question to put toward a $50 million, 200-unit project that would serve, in part, to replace some of the public housing demolished to make way for the sweeping West River redevelopment project on the northwest edge of Downtown Tampa.

But the authority's consultant on this project, The Boulevard at West River, flubbed the application. Major flub or minor flub — and the authority insists it was minor — the mistakes were enough to provide an opening for the competing project in Mango to try grabbing the money for itself.

Last month, the competing project won. A state administrative judge reversed an earlier decision and handed over the credits to the developer working with the county on the Mango project, Blue Sky Communities.

Blue Sky told Christopher O'Donnell of the Tampa Bay Times that going after the credits awarded to The Boulevard project was an idea hatched and executed entirely by the developer with no involvement from Hillsborough County.

Perhaps so.

But that did little to appease Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has noted that the city and county had an agreement for the tax credits to go toward The Boulevard one year and toward a county project the next.

"They reneged on the deal and this is what happens," Buckhorn said.

Of course, the Tampa Housing Authority helped create this rift through its own incompetence in flubbing the application — part of a disturbing pattern of mistakes in its relationships with the private partners who are key to the success of its efforts.

But a partnership on affordable housing between city and county leaders is just as important. Caught in the middle are people with low and even middle incomes who are struggling to find housing in a Tampa-area market where rents are skyrocketing.

The form federal help takes now, for the most part, is credits that encourage private investors to back new affordable rentals in return for a reduction in their federal taxes over 10 years. For every dollar they invest in building low-income apartments, they can subtract a dollar from their tax bill.

At the same time, the state has decided to give local governments more say over what projects receive those tax credits.

This raises the stakes on local cooperation. As has been noted here before, the community already faces stiff competition with other communities in a time of declining federal resources. It shouldn't be competing with itself.

Buckhorn and the Housing Authority have been clear about how the local relationships have deteriorated. No voice on the issue has emerged yet from among county officials.

It is also clear that the mayor is pulling together all the resources he can to bring about a successful West River project — an effort to extend downtown Tampa along 1.3 miles of the Hillsborough River that's certainly not as high a priority for Hillsborough County officials.

The component of West River that is The Boulevard isn't dead, of course, just delayed. The city is already moving to apply for new tax credits.

But it would be a shame for turf battles to stand in the way of maximizing the federal resources available to help make life better for people who are struggling.