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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida needs to recommit to affordable housing

Rising real estate prices are good for Florida's overall economy, but they don't help some middle-class and lower-income families who are struggling to keep a roof over their head. The best way for Tallahassee to combat the growing disillusionment that the American Dream is over and that government doesn't care: The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott need to fully recommit to affordable housing programs and stop making excuses about why they can't.

For the past six years, Florida's affordable housing fund, known as the Sadowski fund, has been a cash cow for lawmakers. Despite a state law setting aside a certain percentage of documentary stamp collections — the tax collected on each real estate transaction — for affordable housing programs, lawmakers have repeatedly raided it for other priorities in years where they've given millions of dollars in special interest tax breaks. This fiscal year, $231 million should have flowed to the Sadowski fund, but in fact lawmakers appropriated only $168 million. That is still better than the previous five years when out of total $866 million, the Legislature spent only $128 million on affordable housing programs.

Now Republican legislative leaders are already suggesting that 2015-16 and beyond could result in more lean years for affordable housing and transportation projects in the wake of the passage of Amendment 1, the environmental land and water conservation measure approved by 75 percent of voters in November. The amendment requires that one-third of the annual proceeds from documentary stamp be spent on water, land and wildlife conservation. That led Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, last month to suggest the voter mandate will squeeze other documentary stamp-funded efforts, including affordable housing and transportation.

But this shouldn't be an either/or proposition, particularly as it is still unclear how much of the documentary stamp money set aside for environmental efforts will free up funds elsewhere in the state budget for spending. Plus, lawmakers should consider how significant Sadowski funding is for stabilizing communities, providing security for citizens, maintaining property values and creating jobs. A United Way survey released just last month highlighted how in every single Florida county at least 20 percent of households are financially vulnerable, just one car repair or lost job away from being homeless.

The strength of the Sadowski fund has always been its diversity of programs. Thirty percent of Sadowski funds go to state-administered programs that provide such things as subsidized loans for apartment developers or rehabilitators who promise to provide units with affordable rents. The remaining 70 percent flows directly to local governments who can use the money for everything from underwriting transitional housing for the homeless to repairing the homes of low-income elderly to helping a young family secure a down payment to buy their own home.

What that means in real terms: In 2010, it meant a developer, Sage Partners, was able to renovate an 11-story high-rise apartment building in downtown St. Petersburg, now called the Viridian, saving 188 apartments for low-income elderly and disabled — some of whom only pay $187 a month in rent. In Tampa, the same developer renovated a 197-unit apartment building along the Hillsborough River, now called Aqua, so it could remain low-income housing. Without affordable housing programs, both would have likely been turned into market properties or razed, leaving hundreds of low-income residents with no where to go, ultimately costing the community and state far more.

Investing in affordable housing makes fiscal sense. It's time Florida renewed its commitment.