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Clearwater to state lawmakers: Stop raiding the affordable housing trust funds

It’s no wonder why Clearwater would prioritize the issue.

CLEARWATER ― Should most of the money in the state’s affordable housing trust funds go to affordable housing?

For 12 years in a row, the Florida Legislature has said no. Clearwater officials want their answer to change this year.

That’s according to the city’s legislative priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. The first bullet point of a drafted document laying out the city’s stances says the state should fully fund the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds and make sure the money in them goes exclusively to housing.

It’s no wonder why Clearwater would prioritize the issue. Chuck Lane, the city’s assistant director for economic development, said the Tampa Bay area’s third-largest city has been hit particularly hard by the affordable housing crunch that afflicts cities all over the state.

Clearwater, with its world-renowned beach, is a tourism town, and tourism is an industry largely staffed by the working class. Those people need affordable places to live, and they’re having difficulty finding them in the city, Lane said.

Clearwater Beach's 2.5-mile shore stretches from north to south. Its white sand stretches nearly uninterrupted along the Gulf of Mexico.
Clearwater Beach's 2.5-mile shore stretches from north to south. Its white sand stretches nearly uninterrupted along the Gulf of Mexico.

The Sadowski funds, which come from a small tax on real estate transactions, will have an estimated $350 million available this fiscal year. According to the state formula that assigns the funds to municipalities, Clearwater is looking at around $1 million in affordable housing money from those funds if they stay intact, Lane said.

That would be about a sixfold increase from 2019, when lawmakers spent about 35 percent of the Sadowski funds on affordable housing for working class families. (Lawmakers redirected $115 million from the trust funds to the Panhandle for Hurricane Michael relief last year.)

Related story: Gov. Ron DeSantis should end the raids on Florida’s affordable housing trust fund

The trust fund money goes a long way toward helping working class people afford homes, Lane says. Clearwater residents making up to 80 percent of area median income ― around $51,000 annually for a family of four ― can qualify for federal housing programs.

Sadowski funds allow cities to help residents making more ― up to 120 percent of the area median income ― but who are still feeling the pinch of rising housing prices. Lane said Sadowski money is often lent by the city to first-time home buyers so they can secure a down payment on a home. The city can re-loan the money to other families once it’s paid back.

The funds can also help cities more easily access federal Home Investment Partnerships Program money for working residents who’ve been priced out of the housing market.

“These people have incomes, these people work,” Lane said. “It’s not free money going out.”

It’s unclear whether Tallahassee lawmakers will give Clearwater its full share of affordable housing money. Last session, the Senate passed a budget that left the Sadowski funds intact, but the House ― and, eventually, the budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis ― did not follow suit.

Related story: Will there be another raid on affordable housing funds? Yes, say House Republicans.

In a statement, Senate President Bill Galvano did not say whether he expected money to move from the Sadowski funds. But he did say, “I will continue to strongly advocate for affordable housing options, as I have done throughout my entire career in the Legislature.”

A spokesman for House Speaker José Oliva did not respond to a request for comment.

Two of the city’s voices in the state Capitol, Rep. Chris Latvala and Sen. Ed Hooper, both Republicans, say they are against redirecting money from the Sadowski funds. But on Tuesday, Hooper met with Clearwater’s lobbyists about the city’s priorities, and affordable housing didn’t come up, he said.

Latvala noted that in Tallahassee, elected officials don’t get to pick apart the state budget and vote ‘yes’ on things they like and ‘no’ on items they don’t.

“It might be something that I have a particular feeling about,” Latvala said of potentially moving money from the Sadowski trust funds. “It’s not something that would cause me to vote against the budget.”

You can read the full list of the city’s legislative priorities for the 2020 session below. Here’s what’s new in it:

  • The city wants the state to establish guidelines for “sustainable utility practices” and potentially fund a water quality and water infrastructure program
  • Clearwater wants Florida to allow the city to tell residents they can’t smoke in certain parts of city parks
  • The city wants the state to create a resiliency program and to “develop funding opportunities” that could allow cities to more easily coordinate their own programs