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Hillsborough County to spend $10 million a year on affordable housing

Commissioners vote to create housing trust fund to build and preserve affordable housing with half earmarked for low-income poorest families.

TAMPA — Until he became homeless, Terry Lofton was spending more than half of his monthly disability check on the $500 rent for a one-room studio.

Now he is sleeping on his cousin’s floor.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Lofton, 61, who has recently worked as a security guard and housekeeper.

For the past six years, the faith-based group HOPE has battled to get Hillsborough County leaders to make a long-term commitment to provide housing for people like Lofton, who struggle with the Tampa Bay region’s rising rental costs.

So the group celebrated this week as the county’s new Democrat-majority commission pledged to set aside $10 million every year for an affordable housing trust fund.

The fund will be used both as a subsidy and incentive for the construction and preservation of affordable housing. Construction will be done through partnerships with non-profit groups and affordable housing developers. The money can also be used to purchase land suitable for affordable housing.

At least half the money must be spent on housing for low-income families. That includes 30 percent for households categorized as “very-low income.” Based on federal calculations used for housing vouchers, a household of four people would need a combined gross income of less than $33,500 to meet that criteria.

“Investing in ways to increase access to affordable housing is critically important to our communities,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman. “When we don’t, we end up with homelessness.”

Recent studies have shown how difficult it is for Tampa Bay’s lowest paid families to keep a roof over their head.

The $1,133 average rent for a two-bedroom apartment here is well beyond the reach of minimum wage and other low-paid workers, a study released in June by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found.

A salary of $21.79 an hour — more than $13 above the state’s minimum wage — would be needed for that rent to be “affordable,” which is defined as spending no more than 30 percent of a person’s income on rent. Households that exceed that threshold risk spiraling into debt.

RELATED STORY: New study says minimum wage worker would need to work almost three full-time jobs to afford two-bedroom rental

The crisis has been exacerbated by the Florida Legislature continually raiding the statewide Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust. Since 2001, lawmakers have siphoned more than $2 billion from the trust into general revenue, according to a Senate report.

The money for Hillsborough’s new trust will come from the county’s general fund. Commissioner Sandy Murman said she is concerned a majority of the money will end up being spent inside the city of Tampa at the expense of unincorporated Hillsborough.

“We’re doing a huge favor to the city of Tampa by doing this,” Murman said. “The Mayor should be sending us a grand thank you note.”

But other commissioners said it makes sense to build affordable housing close to work centers and proposed transit routes expected to be funded by the transportation sales tax.

The creation of a housing trust fund is a significant u-turn for the county. In recent years, it made money available for low-cost housing — as much as $5.1 million in 2018 — but commissioners had been reluctant to make the long-term commitment required for a trust.

Commission Chairman Les Miller acknowledged that it was the persistence of members of HOPE, which is made up of members of local churches, that led the board to relent. Its members frequently packed commission meetings wearing purple HOPE T-shirts.

“Your tenacity on this issue for the last six or seven years has been frightening to a certain extent,” Miller joked. “You hung in there.”

The vote was welcomed by former Republican commissioner Victor Crist, one of the few members of the previous board who consistently voted for a housing trust fund.

“The cost of living has been growing significantly in Florida, most especially the Tampa Bay area, and the need for affordable housing has become very critical,” he said.