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Lawmakers propose cuts to housing trust fund as affordable housing crisis worsens in Tampa Bay area

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Posted at 5:36 PM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 18:15:10-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla.  — It’s a crisis growing worse by the day. Hundreds of families in Tampa Bay are on waiting lists for affordable housing. Now, communities across the state could be at risk of losing millions of dollars meant to fund new affordable housing projects.

Sabrina Tisdale of Clearwater has been without a stable place to live for four years. Hurricane Irma destroyed her rental home and since then, she’s hopped from one hotel to the next.

“I can’t find anything that’s reasonable because they say you have to have two or three times the income to prove you can pay rent, so it’s outrageous,” she said with a sigh.

Tisdale’s story is too common in Tampa Bay. In Pinellas County alone, there’s an estimated shortage of 54,000 affordable housing units.

Jaimie Ross, the CEO of Florida Housing Coalition, says those numbers represent something deeper.

“They represent families that aren’t going to be able to be housed and people who end up becoming homeless,” she explained.

Yet, at a time when Florida’s housing crisis is at its worst, two proposals currently being considered in the house and senate would permanently cut affordable housing funds from $423 million a year statewide to $141 million. Of that, $41 million would be cut from Tampa Bay.

Bowen Arnold of DDA Development Company in Tampa says that would be a huge loss. His company works on affordable housing projects, and he says it makes up about 20-25% of their overall construction.

“To have this is kind of a punch to the stomach, I think, to the affordable housing industry for sure,” he elaborated.

Without that money, developers like Arnold say building new affordable projects would be nearly impossible. The affordable housing units are meant to look and feel just like the market rate, which means they’re just as expensive to build but make less money from tenant rent coming in.

“It could be a significant hit. A lot of the projects we are looking at that are affordable have to have some kind of component of subsidy either from local government or from the state,” Arnold added.

Lawmakers are proposing cutting the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund, which historically has been swiped for other purposes for years, into three parts. If passed, only one-third would go to affordable housing. The rest would tackle flooding, sea-level rise and wastewater initiatives.

That’s upsetting for housing advocates.

“Everyone knows we have a huge housing crisis, especially post-COVID. We have an inadequate supply of affordable housing, and we desperately need the Sadowski Trust Fund money to help with that so it couldn’t come at a worst time. Flooding, sea-level rise and wastewater initiatives are important, but there’s no reason to use housing trust fund money for these purposes,” Ross added.

ABC Action News reached out to the two lawmakers sponsoring the bills, Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson. We heard back from Sprowls' office on Wednesday.

According to a joint press release issued by both lawmakers, the plan is to invest $280 million into affordable housing in 2021, which is about double the $140 - $160 million that has been left in the fund after it has been swept for the past five years. Sprowls' spokesperson Jenna Box Sarkissian said that will permanently prevent future sweeps into the affordable housing funds, by mandating that one-third of the trust fund be used exclusively for affordable housing.

Sarkissian adds that the proposal prioritizes three things: Affordable housing, flooding resiliency and water quality. As documentary stamp tax collections grow, which fill the affordable housing fund, she says the amount of dollars devoted to these issues will grow as well.

“The impacts of sea level rise are being felt by Floridians all across the state; from coastal to inland communities, flooding is a timely and urgent issue that must be addressed now,” said Speaker Sprowls. “This plan maintains funds for another necessity, affordable housing for our residents, at a consistent rate and ensures no further sweeps to those dollars while allowing us to act now so that Florida is resilient to the effects of sea level rise today and tomorrow," Sprowls was quoted in the press release.

"Nearly every year we end up sweeping documentary stamp money that is dedicated to affordable housing into our general revenue fund to spend it on the needs of the day. We also have a tendency to create programs that sound great, but which we don’t actually fund. This proposal addresses all of these issues by modernizing our documentary stamp distributions to dedicate a steady stream of funding in three key areas of infrastructure – affordable housing, wastewater, and mitigating sea-level rise. Floridians have been waiting a long time for a comprehensive plan that addresses these three critical areas of public policy," Senate President Simpson was quoted as part of the same release.

Housing advocates say they would rather see the entire trust fund devoted to affordable housing and the prevention of future sweeps into the fund, thereby giving people like Tisdale a chance.

“Everybody deserves a reasonable place to live and to call home,” Tisdale said while glancing at the Clearwater hotel room she and her 18-year-old son currently share.

Over the past decade, housing advocates say legislators have swept $1.5 billion from the Sadowski Trust Fund for other purposes.