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Lawmakers look to fix affordable housing act after outcry across state

“It doesn’t help the regular working people,” one county commissioner said.
 
The Clevelander Hotel and Bar is shown at dusk along Ocean Drive, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Miami Beach. The iconic Miami Beach hotel and bar will soon be replaced with a high-end restaurant and affordable housing units, the building's owner announced, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.
The Clevelander Hotel and Bar is shown at dusk along Ocean Drive, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Miami Beach. The iconic Miami Beach hotel and bar will soon be replaced with a high-end restaurant and affordable housing units, the building's owner announced, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Feb. 9

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida lawmakers passed legislation to create thousands of affordable housing units last year, it was considered long-overdue relief for low- and middle-income Floridians.

The Live Local Act, as it was called, was a top priority for the Senate president, and no one blanched at its $711 million price tag.

Less than a year later, communities across the state are in uproar. Local officials complain of proposed developments ruining the character of neighborhoods. Some say they’ve lost control of local planning.

And the law has allowed developers to avoid millions in local taxes without providing much affordable housing for lower-income residents.

A report on one of the bill’s key components shows that fewer than 500 new apartments meriting tax breaks are affordable for Floridians earning 80% or less of the median income.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and other state lawmakers have recognized the outrage. The Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a “glitch” bill addressing some — but not all — of the complaints. The legislation still has to pass the House.

Passidomo said she wants to keep working with local governments, and the law could change in future years to accommodate complaints. But she said the Live Local Act’s success will take years to realize.

“The market is going to dictate what is going to be built,” she said. “We have to let this play out.”

That’s little comfort to local officials who believe the legislation hasn’t delivered enough affordable housing.

“It’s absolutely absurd,” said Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano after watching the bill pass on Wednesday. “It doesn’t help the regular working people.”

“Historic” housing support

After years of inaction, last year’s Live Local Act was considered Florida’s most meaningful housing legislation in decades.

Instead of continuing the Legislature’s trend of reassigning affordable housing money, the act devoted a record amount of funding to encourage building. Another $100 million went to no-interest loans for Florida workers.

And apartment developers were given tax incentives if they designated at least 70 units as affordable housing, available to people earning up to 120% of the area’s median income. In comparison, the state’s affordable apartment-building program focuses on units serving people earning only up to 60% of the area’s median income.

The goal was to create more workforce housing — and to break local governments’ grip on new developments.

After seeing communities reject affordable housing projects, Passidomo wanted Live Local to cut through red tape. The act did just that, allowing affordable housing developments to bypass zoning, density and height requirements.

Communities were anxious over losing control, and some advocates noted that the legislation didn’t appear to benefit Floridians making 60% or less of area median income, a level that affordable housing buildings have traditionally sought to help.

Still, the legislation sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support and was praised by most affordable housing advocates for its record funding. Gov. Ron DeSantis called it “historic” while signing the bill.

After taking effect in July, it quickly prompted clashes between developers and local officials and residents.

Concerns over neighborhoods

In Miami Beach, the owners of the iconic Clevelander Hotel and Bar announced in September they wanted to replace the property with a 30-story tower, with 40% of units qualifying under the higher range of what the Live Local Act designated as “affordable.” The mayor called it the “worst idea ever” because it would “destroy” the city’s Ocean Drive skyline, and the owners shrank the proposal to 18 stories.

In Doral, a 17-acre high-rise development was proposed next to a community of two-story townhomes. City officials blocked it by invoking a six-month building moratorium. Projects in Weston and Hollywood also were met with resistance.

Few communities have been as vocal against the Live Local Act as Pasco County, which has ample housing but lacks enough jobs. In December, commissioners threatened to sue apartment developers that build on industrial or commercial property. County officials want to preserve those areas to attract jobs.

Senate Bill 328, approved Wednesday, addresses one of the concerns raised by local governments. It would prohibit developments from being higher than 150% of the next-tallest building if it’s adjacent to a neighborhood of at least 25 single-family homes.

But it also prohibits communities from using other methods to restrict the size of buildings.

Sen. Alexis Calatayud, R-Miami, who sponsored the bill, called it an “enhancement” to the Live Local Act that preserves the “character of communities.”

What’s ‘affordable’?

SB 328 does nothing to address some of the biggest complaints from communities: tax credits for housing that they don’t consider affordable.

The Live Local Act gives apartment developers property tax exemptions of 75% or 100% if they offer at least 70 units that are affordable for households making up to 120% of the area’s median income. In Tampa Bay, that’s $104,280 for a family of four, according to federal data. It’s $123,840 in Miami-Dade County.

Local officials say those standards stretch the definition of who would qualify for affordable housing. They say developers don’t have to lower their rents to qualify for tax breaks. Meanwhile, those tax breaks could cost local governments millions in tax revenue.

In Gainesville, six of the seven apartment complexes that have applied for tax exemptions are student housing around the University of Florida, City Commissioner Bryan Eastman told a Senate committee last week.

Full-time college students usually don’t qualify for affordable housing programs because students are often subsidized by student loans or their parents, Eastman said. The Live Local Act has no such exemption, and he said the tax exemptions could deprive the city of $3 million in revenue per year.

“A bill that was designed to house low-income residents may be used to give tax exemptions for luxury student housing,” Eastman said.

Data from the first six months of the Live Local Act shows that 83 apartment complexes around the state met standards for credits. Those complexes listed 40% of their inventory — about 9,500 units — as affordable under the Live Local Act’s more generous definition of households earning 120% of the area median income.

Less than 500 units were designated for people who earn 80% or less of the area median income — $82,560 for a family of four in Miami-Dade County and $69,520 in Tampa Bay.

In Pasco County, two existing apartment complexes that tout “luxury” features have applied for tax credits. The website for Tapestry Cypress Creek offers a clubhouse and saltwater pool. The Gallery at Trinity Apartments features pickleball and an “elite” putting green.

Collectively, the two complexes applied for tax credits because 266 of their 629 units qualify for 120% of the area’s median income. None were below 80%. The owners of the apartments have not responded to requests for comment.

When asked by a fellow senator about “luxury” apartments qualifying for tax credits, Calatayud said it “meets the spirit of the legislation” as long as the units are 10% below market rate.

“So good on those Pasco guys that get to move into there,” Calatayud said.

David Goldstein, Pasco County’s chief assistant county attorney, sent demand letters Wednesday to the two complexes asking them not to apply for the exemptions or to rescind them, claiming the tax credits are unconstitutional because the developments are not a charity. Those tax breaks could cost county coffers as much as $86 million through 2059.

The letter states that the rents charged for a two-bedroom apartment in the complexes “are not affordable to the average Pasco County sheriffs deputy, firefighter or school teacher.”

According to federal guidelines, the area median income in Pasco County, which is lumped into the Tampa Bay area, is $89,400. At 120%, a one-bedroom apartment is considered affordable up to $1,957 per month. A two-bedroom would be $2,349.

The Tampa Bay area including Pasco already has a surplus of rental units serving people earning between 80% and 120% of the median income, said Mariano, the Pasco commissioner. He pointed to University of Florida data that shows the area lacks about 380,000 cheaper units — one-bedrooms that cost no more than $1,305 per month and two-bedrooms under $1,566.

Pasco argued to state leaders that the existing Live Local income targets for affordable housing don’t meet what Pasco needs, and proposed language to allow each community to define its need.

”It just can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey told the Tampa Bay Times. She called the tax exemption “corporate welfare.”

“It’s a tax giveaway with no benefit whatsoever.”

Miami Herald staff writer Aaron Leibowitz contributed to this report.