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Lawmakers to take mini-bus tour of low-income housing in Pinellas

CLEARWATER — For three months, advocates for low-income housing have contacted bay area lawmakers asking them to join a two-hour mini-tour of housing projects that received state money.

The advocates asked lawmakers about their availability, called their offices and mailed formal invitations. They scheduled two tour options: one on Tuesday in North Pinellas and another on Wednesday in south Pinellas.

But as of Friday, only state Reps. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, and Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, had confirmed they would ride along. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he would send an aide.

Six other area lawmakers did not confirm their attendance or return calls from the Tampa Bay Times.

"There's a lot of stuff happening right now, people are busy," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who said he didn't plan to attend but is familiar with the properties on the tour.

The purpose of the tour, organized by the Low-Income Housing Leadership Network, is to educate lawmakers about the projects paid for by the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund, which the state has raided for other purposes every year since 2008.

The tour was organized in response to lawmakers who complained they didn't know how the Sadowski money was being spent. Enter the legislative bus tour, which will take lawmakers to homes built by Habitat for Humanity and apartments for senior citizens and working families, among other properties.

Legislators will also hear stories from people who have benefitted from the Sadowski funds, which provide programs that range from emergency home repair to down payment and closing cost assistance for families in need.

With some exceptions, the funds go to people who earn up to 120 percent of the median household income, which is about $48,000 in Florida for a family of four.

Many are working people who lost a job or had an illness in the family and might not have the income to buy a home or have it rehabilitated, said Nina Bandoni, a consultant for affordable housing programs who is helping to organize the tour.

Some of the money also helps elderly people stay in their own homes so they don't have to go to nursing homes, said Bandoni, who is also a Safety Harbor city commissioner.

The Sadowski Act, passed in 1992 and named for former state Rep. William Sadowski who died in a plane crash, created a tax on home sales to ensure a dedicated revenue source for local housing programs. The bipartisan bill passed with the backing of 25 statewide organizations, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Realtors.

Then came the recession, when lawmakers used the money to plug budget gaps.

Affordable housing advocates hoped that practice would end when the economy rebounded, but were disheartened this year when lawmakers swept the fund again — although that time, it was mostly backfilled with money from a one-time foreclosure settlement.

Now affordable housing advocates are looking toward 2014 with uncertainty.

"If you don't know how much money you're going to have from one year to the next, it really sets a program up for failure," said Jaimie Ross, who lobbies the Florida Legislature and works on affordable housing issues with 1,000 Friends of Florida, an advocacy group.

Hooper, whose role as chairman of the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee gives him special influence over the Sadowski money, said lobbyists for affordable housing seem more organized and more focused in their message than in years past.

He's optimistic the rebounding economy will help the state restore the money this year.

"The statute is pretty clear about what the trust fund should be used for," he said. "And that's what it should go to if there are not more pressing needs from the state."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at or (727) 445-4155.