TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Pam Bondi praised Florida House Republicans last week after they unveiled a plan to spend $200 million from a national mortgage settlement on a variety of affordable housing needs for those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting this money back where it was meant to go," Bondi told members of the House budget committee.
Lost amid all the back-slapping, however, is that House Republicans are planning to strip an equal amount for housing aid — $200 million — from a separate trust fund so that it could be spent on other priorities, such as teacher raises and health care. In effect, they are swapping out what the state already had set aside for affordable housing while claiming they are spending more on it.
"What they're doing is a shell game," said Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition. "We have no budget deficit, and yet the House is still planning to take this money we have for affordable housing. There's no excuse. It's embarrassing."
Ross helps administer the Sadowski trust fund, which was created in 1992 to finance affordable housing programs in Florida. The fund, which is financed by a tax on real estate transactions, pays for rehabilitation and renovation of existing homes and down payment and closing cost assistance for those who qualify.
"The next wave of foreclosures will hit those under water, who can afford their mortgages, but can't afford major repairs like roofs," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development manager. "This money helps pay for those repairs."
It's needed more than ever, housing advocates say. The Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida reported last year that the percentage of residents who are paying more for housing then they can afford has increased 21 percent since 2005.
Yet the fund has been a popular piggy bank for lawmakers. In the past four years, lawmakers have taken $622 million from the trust fund to spend on other budget needs.
Those were years in which there were record budget shortfalls.
With no shortfall this year, Ross and other housing officials said they didn't expect that lawmakers would dip into the Sadowski fund again.
But in a bill approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, the entire fund would be swept. Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who chairs the House committee that oversees the Sadowski money, said he decided to sweep it entirely because of the mortgage settlement money, even though the two pots of money are spent differently.
The mortgage settlement would include $60 million for legal aid and counseling and $45 million for a new housing down payment assistance program aimed at teachers and other professions.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, unsuccessfully tried to preserve $25 million in Sadowski money to provide assistance for existing homeowners.
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Much of the mortgage assistance money, he said, would take a year to two years to be spent because it is for new programs or for construction projects.
The Sadowski money, by contrast, can be used now to help homeowners, he said.
"So we can help our seniors today, tomorrow and in the immediate future," Fasano said. "Not to wait three to five years down the road. So that senior citizen who needs a new roof so she can stay in her home will get that money now, so that family that may need that air conditioner fixed can stay in their home now."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.