For four years, Florida lawmakers unwilling to have broader discussions about raising revenue have used the same excuse to undercut the state's longtime commitment to affordable housing: Cash-strapped state budgets required them to raid affordable housing programs to cover other general government needs. Now it's a habit Republican leaders apparently aren't willing to break — and the House is even hiding behind the ill-gotten gains of the nation's biggest banks to do so. With the state's finances improved, it's time to restore Florida's commitment to affordable housing.
Since 1992, every time a piece of property changes hands, a portion of the state transaction tax — officially called documentary stamps — is set aside to underwrite affordable housing for those earning no more than 80 percent of the state's median income. The beauty of the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund has always been its multifaceted approach. It is not a public housing program but rather works to leverage private investment — from residents to developers — to create affordable opportunities in the private market. No wonder it enjoys such broad support among business groups.
Under the law, 30 percent of Sadowski funds go to state-administered programs such as subsidized loans for apartment developers who promise to provide units with affordable rents. But 70 percent flows directly to local governments for programs aimed at serving their residents — from down payment assistance for working families to home renovation for the low-income disabled. Under the law, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and their municipalities in 2013-14 should get $16.2 million.
But that won't happen if the House has anything to say about it. Rep. Ed Hooper, a former Clearwater city commissioner, chairs the House budget committee that voted to once again sweep nearly $200 million in local government Sadowski funds for 2013-14 for other expenses — even as state economists are projecting a revenue surplus north of $1 billion. The absurd rationale: His committee had already committed another $200 million to housing collected from five major banks as part of a national settlement over their mortgage abuses.
Never mind that the money from the national settlement won't benefit the same population. Most of the settlement money is appropriately tagged toward mitigating the damage caused when the banks failed to follow sound mortgage rules, from covering costs for expanded foreclosure courts to legal assistance for those facing foreclosure. Only $45 million will go toward a down payment assistance program for teachers and other professions.
That's no substitute for the variety of Floridians that the Sadowski money would assist if it flowed to local governments, but so far no one in Tallahassee can seem to resist going back to the Sadowski trough. Gov. Rick Scott proposed spending only $50 million of the Sadowksi funds appropriately. The Senate, at $70 million, does better. But fully restoring Florida's affordable housing commitment makes more sense. Helping individuals find homes and rehabilitate properties stabilizes communities, creates jobs and will help Florida's housing rebound. It's time for the Legislature to stop the shell game and renew the commitment to affordable housing for Floridians.