Maybe this year the Legislature will stop swiping the money earmarked for Florida’s affordable housing

A modest foreclosed home in Miami. Photo by Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Scrambling to pay rent or find affordable housing is a daily reality for many of Florida’s poorest residents.

According to 2017 data from the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing studies:

–Over 1.94 million low-income households in Florida pay nearly a third or more of their income for housing.

–Some 1.1 million of those low-income households pay more than half their income for housing.

–And nearly 913,000 of the households paying more than half their income for housing are “very low-income” families. That means they earn 50 percent or less than the median income in their areas. Statewide, the median household income was $52,594 in 2017.

Yet despite those challenges, affordable housing is not at the top of the Florida Legislature’s annual to-do list.

In fact, since 2001, Florida lawmakers have raided an affordable housing trust fund for some $2.2 billion, shifting much of the housing money to other state programs.

Last year, the Legislature “swept” $182 million from the affordable housing trust fund, citing the need to increase state spending on school safety programs in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Broward County. It left only $123 million in the housing program.

But with a new governor, housing advocates say they are more optimistic about reviving full funding of the state’s affordable housing initiative this year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended $338.4 million for the affordable housing program in his budget plan for 2019-20. If adopted by lawmakers, it would be the first time in about a dozen years that the program would be fully funded, he said.

In contrast, former Gov. Rick Scott recommended an affordable housing trust fund sweep in each of his eight years in office, which meant that housing funds lost  some $1.1 billion in the final state budgets during that period.

Jaimie Ross, president of the nonprofit Florida Housing Coalition, said DeSantis’ recommendation is a significant shift in state policy for the governor’s office.

Ross acknowledged DeSantis’ budget plan is only a recommendation and that the Legislature will ultimately decide the actual spending in the new state budget.

“But it signals the administration’s priorities. This should be an administration priority. But it hasn’t been for a very long time. So we’re very excited,” Ross said. “From where I sit, Gov. DeSantis has earned the mantle of housing champion.”

Florida uses  a dedicated portion of the tax on real estate transactions for affordable housing programs each year.

Some 70 percent of the funding goes to  Florida  counties and cities, based on population. The local governments use it to build and rehabilitate affordable housing and to give  people financial help  for down payments or closing costs.

The remainder pays to build and and rehabilitate affordable multi-family apartments.

“When we talk about the affordable housing need, it’s from ending homelessness to helping people get into first-time home ownership. It’s  a whole span,” Ross said.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have raided the housing trust funds for 11 consecutive years.

A Florida Housing Coalition report last year shows  how those funding shifts impact affordable housing availability.

After fund shifts between 2009 and 2013, the state was able to help an average of 1,812 households a year. But if the program is fully funded, the report shows, the state can help far more people – some 8,000 to 10,000 households.

Ross said that, outside of major state financial challenges like the Great Recession, lawmakers should not be raiding the housing trust fund.

“This is a dedicated revenue source for much-needed housing to fund excellent programs that are a benefit to everybody in the state,” Ross said. “If there is an emergency, if there is recession, that’s understandable. But outside of an emergency, no, there’s no reason to take one penny out of the housing trust fund.”

Florida Senate leaders have supported full funding for the affordable housing programs, but the state House has supported major sweeps of the housing trust funds over the years. Last year, before the Broward County school shooting, House budget writers shifted all of the housing money to other state programs, except for a portion targeted for areas impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Matthew.

Senate Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, filed legislation last year to stop the Legislature from sweeping the housing trust fund money, but it didn’t pass. This year, she is supporting a similar bill (SB 70) filed by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Melbourne Republican.

“I think that philosophy is shared by many of my colleagues and hopefully we will be able to avoid sweeping the (affordable housing) funds and use them because we will need them, particularly in the Panhandle for redevelopment and rebuilding” after Hurricane Michael, Passidomo said.

House Democrats said they support the governor’s recommendation to fully fund the affordable housing programs in the next budget year, which begins July 1.

“I’m very happy to hear we are not going to be sweeping the affordable housing trust fund  – at least as far as the (governor’s) proposal,” said Rep. Joe Geller, a Miami Democrat. “At home, in the counties I represent, that is a very important issue.”

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