Gov. Ron DeSantis should end the raids on Florida's affordable housing trust fund

Once again, state lawmakers have raided the affordable housing trust fund. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times (2019)
Once again, state lawmakers have raided the affordable housing trust fund. OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2019)
Published May 16, 2019

Some things seem inevitable. Snowbirds return every fall, beach bars play Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, and Florida lawmakers pillage the affordable housing trust fund.

They did it again this year, sweeping $240 million to other purposes, leaving just $85 million to help house low-income families. This is the 12th year in a row that Republicans who control the state House have steered at least half the trust fund's money toward other budget priorities. The raids date back even further. Since 2001, they have siphoned more than $2 billion from the trust fund into general revenue, according to a Senate report.

After the Great Recession, state leaders said they needed the money for vital government operations. As the economy improved, they kept doing it because they could. They liked to remind everyone that earmarks for affordable housing were merely suggestions for how to spend the money. The Legislature writes the budget, they said.

The state is now coping with an affordable housing crisis, an outcome any two-bit seer could have predicted.

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More than 20,000 people are on the Tampa Housing Authority's wait list for subsidized apartments or vouchers. In Pinellas, it's about 16,000 families. Miami needs at least 50,000 units, a recent study found.

The Tampa Bay metro area has one of the most severe affordable housing shortages in the country, thanks to low wages, high rents and rising home prices, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition's 2019 Gap Report. Orlando was even worse, ranking last for the number of affordable rental homes.

The problem doesn't just affect the homeless or the chronically unemployed. Teachers complain they can't afford to live close to where they work. So do new police officers and firefighters. Business leaders often list affordable housing for workers among their top concerns.

In the early 1990s, state leaders added a surcharge to real estate transactions as part of the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act, named after a former legislator who died in a plane crash. The money helps with financing for developers who agree to build affordable rental apartments. Counties also use the funds to repair existing housing or to support down payment assistance for first-time home buyers.

Advocates praised Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year when he said affordable housing was a priority. Before the recently ended legislative session, he proposed keeping the trust fund intact. So too did the state Senate. House leaders saw things differently.

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After negotiations, lawmakers appropriated $115 million from the trust fund to help the Panhandle dig out from Hurricane Michael. That's reasonable given that an ongoing partisan spat in Washington has delayed federal aid.

But they also swept $125 million into the general fund, a piggy bank that can fund their pet projects. They left just $85 million for affordable housing. Not nearly enough to tackle the problem.

The Sadowski Coalition, 32 diverse groups ranging from the Florida Bankers Association to the Florida Veterans Foundation, has asked the governor to use a line-item veto to restore the $125 million to the fund. The coalition points to how former Gov. Rick Scott used a similar veto after legislators tried to sweep money from his beloved Economic Enhancement and Development Trust Fund.

"There's a precedent for this," said Jaimie Ross, the coalition's facilitator. "That was a Republican governor saying no to members of his own party."

Gov. DeSantis should veto the $125 million. It's the right thing to do and will also send a message to House leaders to stop their annual assault on the trust fund.

Cities and counties need the money to tackle the crisis before it gets worse. Some lawmakers seem to think it's smart to choke the water hoses as a fire rages. That's short-sighted. Affordable housing helps ensure a vibrant workforce, the lifeblood of a diverse economy.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.