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ACTION NEEDED TO KEEP RENTAL PRICES IN CHECK

Legislators concerned about affordable housing options for their constituents shouldn't stop their efforts simply because voters approved property tax breaks for themselves under Amendment 1.

Housing needs for as many as 120,000 of Florida's most vulnerable residents should be addressed before low-income families, senior citizens, farm workers and the disabled find themselves out on the street in the next seven years.

Affordable housing advocates call it a crisis. The state's inventory of lower-cost housing units is poised to shrink by as many as 45,000 apartments (nearly 17 percent of the current inventory) by 2015 because rental restrictions tied to original government-backed construction loans are expiring.

It means the owners of 15- to 20-year-old apartment buildings have the option of raising the rents to market value or converting the units to be sold as condominiums. That worse-case scenario leaves an estimated 120,000 people with fewer options for housing.

The problem is most pronounced in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Duval and Orange counties. In Pinellas, the rental caps are due to expire at more than 3,100 apartments in 34 locations. In Pasco, 581 apartments at 14 properties are affected. In Hernando, the restrictions already expired on 152 units at four sites and 62 additional apartments could lose rent controls by 2015.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is the lead sponsor of SB 1362, a bill that creates the Florida Housing Preservation Program. The bill, which does not yet have a sponsor in the House, uses public and private money to allow nonprofit groups and others to acquire and rehabilitate multifamily rental units and mobile home parks that will be maintained for low-income tenants.

It is expected to be an uphill battle in a difficult budget year as legislators confront an expected $2-billion shortfall. The program's seed money comes from the same affordable housing trust Gov. Charlie Crist is proposing to use for other purposes.

The trust, containing nearly $600-million, earmarks $243-million for existing affordable housing programs.

Crist's proposed budget seeks to put $75-million into a down payment program for home buyers and sweep $240-million into the general revenue ledger for other spending. That leaves approximately $75-million in the trust Fasano's bill will seek to tap.

The proposal calls for a $50-million appropriation: $25-million for so-called three-year bridge loans allowing properties to be bought and fixed up in anticipation of long-term financing being available later; and $25-million to rehabilitate apartments at least 15 years old. Housing advocates say the bridge loan program is most imperative since it can be leveraged fourfold, providing a $125-million pool of available financing.

Fasano acknowledged such spending decisions will be made during budget negotiations among Senate President Ken Pruitt, House Speaker Marco Rubio and Crist.

"If we don't address the problem now, we're going to have a huge crisis in the next few years," said Fasano, "and if we ignore it, we're going to have hundreds and then thousands of people not being able to afford where they're living."

Indeed. The legislative rush to campaign as advocates for overextended homeowners shouldn't leave behind the housing concerns of people in more desperate financial situations.

OUR PERSPECTIVE

"A percussionist, I'm not. Or so I thought until I sat in on the fire and drum circle in Largo this past weekend. Once the first song started rolling, pounding on my borrowed drum started to feel like second nature. I couldn't help but drum on the steering wheel the whole way home."

Rita Farlow, Times staff writer

See the Photos and story, pages 8-9

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