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Florida lawmakers divert affordable housing money to ‘hometown heroes’

The money would go to home ownership amid soaring prices. Experts say affordable rental units are also needed.
The Florida Legislature appears ready to divert $100 million to establish a “hometown heroes” program, which could help people like police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses as Florida’s housing prices continue soaring. Details about the program and who would be a "hometown hero" have not been announced.
The Florida Legislature appears ready to divert $100 million to establish a “hometown heroes” program, which could help people like police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses as Florida’s housing prices continue soaring. Details about the program and who would be a "hometown hero" have not been announced. [ GERRY BROOME | AP ]
Published Mar. 8|Updated Mar. 8

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are looking to divert $100 million in affordable housing money to help “hometown heroes” like nurses, police officers and teachers pay their closing costs and down payments on new homes.

Under a plan agreed to by House and Senate budget negotiators, the money would come out of $209 million assigned to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, known as SHIP.

That program goes to cities and counties to establish affordable housing policies, including funding low-income homeowners’ emergency repairs, down payments and closing cost assistance, as well as construction and acquisition of property for affordable housing.

Under the Legislature’s plan, nearly half of that money would go to a new “hometown heroes” program established by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

Related: Florida renters scramble for shelter as affordable housing erodes

Who would be considered a “hometown hero,” and how the program would work, has not been decided.

A proposed Senate bill this session would create a similar “hometown heroes” program for police, firefighters, 911 operators, teachers, paramedics, health care workers and home health aides. Under the bill, eligible participants would have to be first-time homebuyers whose family income does not exceed 150 percent of the state or local median income, whichever is greater.

That proposed program would have offered 0 percent interest rate loans for down payments and closing costs up to 5 percent or $25,000, whichever is less. The loans would have to be repaid when the property is sold, refinanced, rented or transferred.

But that bill has not passed this year, and just days remain in the legislative session.

Florida’s rents and housing costs have been soaring for years, and the problem has been compounded by decisions by the Legislature over the years to divert money to nonhousing-related issues.

Last year, lawmakers announced a new deal to permanently cut the state’s affordable housing dollars. Under that plan, a third of affordable housing dollars goes to environmental and flooding projects, a third to wastewater programs, and the rest to affordable housing, which would be permanently protected.

The Legislature could have paid for the new “hometown heroes” program without taking affordable housing funds, said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, which provides training and technical assistance on housing-related issues.

While the new program has a “good purpose,” she said Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget fully funded the state’s affordable housing programs.

“It’s unfortunate the Legislature did not follow the governor’s recommendation,” she said in a statement.

The idea to divert affordable housing money this year came from Republican leaders in the House, who wanted to help Floridians establish equity in assets, said Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace.

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“That’s the House’s stance, that we’re trying to promote homeownership,” Williamson said last week.

Florida’s affordable housing is a crisis in large part because of a lack of affordable rental units. In South Florida, rents rose 34 percent last year in some places.

According to a Harvard housing index, Florida renters spend a higher percentage of their income on rent than those in every other state, including California.

“I think increasing homeownership is a wonderful goal,” said Elizabeth Strom, a University of South Florida professor who studies urban planning and affordable housing.

About 35 percent of the state’s residents are renters, however, a figure that has been steady despite the state’s booming housing industry.

“We can’t all live in single-family housing,” Strom said. “I think we’re making the problem worse.”

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