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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The Florida Legislature sells out (again) to developers

The Legislature wants to make it more expensive for local governments to require affordable housing units. This is the Burlington Post, a St. Petersburg development offers affordable housing for older residents. Times (2018)
The Legislature wants to make it more expensive for local governments to require affordable housing units. This is the Burlington Post, a St. Petersburg development offers affordable housing for older residents. Times (2018)
Published May 21, 2019

While the lack of affordable housing is a top issue in urban areas from South Florida to Tampa Bay, the Florida Legislature is trying to make it harder for local governments to meet the demand. They have once again sided with well-heeled developers, making it more expensive for counties and cities to add affordable housing and for citizens who want to challenge a development decision in court. This double whammy would curtail innovation and muzzle residents, and Gov. Ron DeSantis should veto it.

The legislation, HB 7103, was once even worse until Senate leaders stepped in. Originally, House leaders wanted to ban local governments from creating zoning that required developers to set aside units for low-income residents. The revised bill that passed allows the zoning, but it requires local governments to cover developers' associated costs. In other words, cities and counties would be forced to pay up, likely by waiving fees or offering bonuses or other financial incentives.

The requirement makes little sense other than to pad developers' bottom lines. No one forces them to build in areas where they don't like the zoning requirements. If they don't think they can make enough money in areas that require affordable units, they can build elsewhere.

Locally elected officials should set the community's development priorities, not state legislators too often influenced more by strict ideology and campaign contributions than by common sense. If local residents don't like the results, they can vote for someone else in the next election. But many residents understand that local officials need to try different ways to promote construction of affordable housing. What works in one city might not in another, but they should be left to figure out their own best path. That's how innovation works. Instead, this law would handcuff local leaders.

To make matters worse, the bill also requires the loser in any challenge to a development decision to pay the other side's legal fees, a provision added at the last minute by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R.-St. Petersburg. On the surface, that might seem fair. But what it really does is make it perilous for a citizen or grassroots group to dare push back when a local government adjusts its development plans to accommodate a project. Court cases always hold some risk, and legal fees can add up quickly, so even someone with a strong legal argument will think twice. Who would take on a deep-pocketed government when it might mean personal financial ruin?

The result will be more parking lots, strip malls and condo towers where they don't belong, as residents shy away from using the publicly funded court system to remedy government mistakes. Left unchecked, poor development decisions will scrub away what makes neighborhoods distinctive. It could mean more density where less is needed and vice versa. Bully for developers. Terrible for participatory democracy.

In vetoing a stated ban on local bans of plastic straws, DeSantis demonstrated a willingness recently to buck Republican legislative leaders when it comes to their relentless gutting of home rule. He should do the same with HB 7103. Limiting the ability of cities and counties to tackle the affordable housing crisis and curtailing access to the courts benefits only developers. Floridians deserve better.

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