Hillsborough in dire need of more affordable housing, faith group says

Published April 17 2018
Updated April 18 2018

CARROLLWOOD — For the past six years, the classroom was Madian Maquivar’s refuge.

With her gift for helping English-language learners at Dover Elementary School, the bilingual paraprofessional was named as a finalist for the county’s best educator awards in 2015.

But away from work, she has endured roach-ridden apartments, trailers, motels and gang violence.

Maquivar and her husband, Miguel Castro, both work, but they cannot afford the $1,000 or more monthly rents charged for most two-bedroom apartments. The low-cost, run-down places they lived in left her stressed, sick and afraid to let her 9-year-old son, Noah, play outside

"All we want is a safe, clean and stable place to live," she said. "I want my son to feel comfortable going outside to play. I want him to be proud and say, ‘I grew up in this house.’"

Thousands of teachers, firefighters and other professionals like Maquivar are struggling to afford decent housing or are paying more than half their income on rent, according to the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, an interfaith group that champions social causes. It is asking county leaders to dedicate more money for affordable housing.

Close to 1,200 congregation members from the two dozen Tampa-area churches that comprise HOPE gathered Monday evening at the Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood to put county commissioners on the spot about the issue.

HOPE members also grilled officials on the group’s other priorities — making more resources available to care for older people and extending Hillsborough County’s civil citation program to include second and third offenses for juveniles who commit misdemeanor crimes or are involved in domestic violence such as fights with siblings.

The group wants the county to dedicate $10 million every year to a trust fund dedicated to funding affordable housing projects.

Housing advocates say families should not spend more than one third of their income on housing. Otherwise, they risk spiralling into debt when unexpected expenses like car repairs or medical bills spring up.

But in Hillsborough, more than 215,000 families are spending more than 30 percent on rent, according to the Florida Housing Data Clearing House, a resource partly funded by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.

"Everyone deserves a decent affordable place to call home, yet our family has an affordable housing crisis," said Char Lerch, a volunteer at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.

Lending his support to the cause was Jeff Eakins, superintendent of schools for Hillsborough County.

Eakins said a survey of about 65 fifth-graders at one Hillsborough school showed that only five students had completed their elementary education without having to move to a different home. Frequent moves lead to low graduation rates and higher drop-out rates, he said.

"This is critical not just for the family but for the education of the youth," he said.

HOPE invited all seven members of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners to the event, where typically elected officials are asked whether they will support the interfaith group’s solution.

Only commissioners Victor Crist and Pat Kemp turned up. Both gave a resounding "yes"to the proposal and agreed to raise the issue at a future commission meeting.

"You put your finger on what is a critical problem," Kemp said. "We have more than 200,000 households that have to spend more than 30 percent on housing and that’s unconscionable."

But it’s unclear how much more support the idea will get.

Crist made a similar pledge two years ago and raised the issue from the dais this year, too, without getting support from other county commissioners who are wary of committing money when there is a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year that would double the homestead exemption meaning millions less in revenue for the county.

In addition, the county has already spent $62 million on affordable housing over the past five years, mostly from federal funds such as block grants.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times