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Retooled housing program waits on state

The county is awaiting state approval of a proposed three-year affordable housing program, one that local officials say offers creative solutions to needs.

The proposal, which the County Commission approved April 7, includes new spending for emergency and utility connection assistance.

While continuing to emphasize home ownership, the plan seeks to encourage the construction of more affordable housing by putting aside $100,000 in the 1998-99 budget for multifamily rental units.

"I think there's a great need in the county for that (affordable rental housing)," said Rhonda Lestinsky, chairwoman of the county's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, which sent the plan to the commissioners. "We have more low- and middle-income people in our county than above-average income."

Approval by the Florida Housing Finance Corp. would make an estimated $736,000 available to the county by July 1 for that and other programs, Assistant County Housing Director Joe Monroe said.

The proposed annual budgets, which have increased nearly three-fold since 1993, are funded through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program. That program receives money through document filing fees.

By law, 60 percent of the program funding must help low-income residents and very low-income people.

Although the three-year plan continues the division's old strategies, the proposal clearly has been adapted to new ideas, some brought on by recent crisis and policy decisions in Citrus County.

The housing division in the past always has provided emergency aid to clients, Monroe said. But the new proposal puts aside $25,000 in next year's budget just for that purpose and makes it available to very low- and low-income people affected by a natural disaster, a reaction to recent flooding.

"We have funds ready for an emergency," Monroe said. "We are starting to get some (calls) . . . like Sherwood Forest and those type areas."

For years, the division has provided closing and other costs related to buying a home for first-time buyers. That will continue, but under the three-year program, $60,000 would become available next year to pay permit, impact and other fees associated with connecting owner-occupied residences to regional central sewer and water service.

The county is aggressively pushing construction of such a system, much of which would pass through low-income areas.

Another new program would provide $50,000 after July 1 to form home construction partnerships. The goal is to build about two new homes each year, Monroe said.

A fair for first-time home buyers will be 3-7 p.m. May 12 at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

The rental unit construction program is one of the boldest additions, and the $100,000 allotted is just for one year so far, a reflection of its experimental nature, Monroe said.

Because the county has discretion over 40 percent of its budget, any multifamily rental housing complex would probably include a mix of incomes.

The relatively small sum set aside for this effort underscores the county's caution in gauging interest in this kind of construction, he added.