Raiding state housing funds hurts disabled Floridians who need homes

Residents at The Arc of Bradford County home

A modest brick house with a metal roof and white shutters in Bradford County is one way to look at the Florida Legislature’s annual debate over affordable housing funding.

Thanks to the state’s affordable housing program, The Arc of Bradford County received $210,000 to renovate the home, which houses six women with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The renovations included a new roof, a heating and air system, a screen porch, handrails, updated bathrooms to comply with the American with Disabilities Act and a covered walkway. Carpeting was replaced with a tile floor to avoid falls.

“It was a tremendous amount of work,” said Sherry Ruszkowski, the executive director of The Arc of Bradford County.

Without the state funding, Ruszkowski says her organization would have had to take out a loan to bring the aging home up to standards set by the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

“It would have been a burden to do the amount and the scope of work that was done on that house,” Ruszkowski said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix. “For us to have taken that on, it probably would have been financially devastating.”

Housing for Floridians with “special needs,” includes disabled residents and veterans, domestic violence victims and youth aging out of the foster care system, is a smaller portion of the state’s affordable housing program.

In 2015-16, some $34 million out of the $100 million in the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) program went to households with special-needs residents, according to the 2018 report from the Florida Housing Finance Corp. The SHIP money is distributed to all 67 counties and 52 cities based on population.

Advocates say the state could be doing more for special-needs Floridians as well as other lower-income residents if the Legislature fully funded the affordable housing program. A 2019 report showed there were some 922,000 “very low-income” Floridians, including residents with disabilities, who were paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing.

But since 2001, lawmakers have raided the affordable housing trust fund for more than $2.2 billion, shifting the housing money to other programs in the state budget.

In the current year, lawmakers approved $200 million for the housing program, including $115 million for areas impacted by Hurricane Michael in 2018. But they also shifted more than $125 million in housing funds to other programs.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis supported full funding for the affordable housing program in his budget request last year. The Senate supported that position, but agreed to a $125 million fund shift in the final budget deal with the House.

With the 2020 session starting in January, housing advocates will continue to press for full funding for the program in the next budget year.

“What’s needed is the full appropriation…that’s really the issue,” Jaimie Ross, head of the Florida Housing Coalition, told the Senate Appropriations Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development subcommittee earlier this month.

The growing need for affordable housing is well illustrated by the Bradford County project.

Ruszkowski said some of the women living in the home, who range in ages from their mid-40s to 75, came to the facility after living independently. “As they aged, they required more care and they had to let their homes go and come to our home for more care,” she said.

Others were being taken care of by family members who got older.

“They’re at a point in their lives where they can’t do that anymore,” said Ruszkowski, who has been with The Arc organization for more than three decades. “You might have an 80-year-old mother trying to take care of a 50-year-old son or daughter.”

The 2019 “Home Matters” report from the Florida Housing Coalition makes the case that providing housing for Floridians with disabilities or lower-income seniors saves the state money in the long run.

“Studies show that home and community-based services for elderly as well as permanently supportive housing for persons with disabilities are significantly more cost effective than institutionalized care or relying on jails and emergency rooms,” the report said. “An investment in affordable housing is fiscally responsible, with a significant return on investment.”

Citing data from the AARP, the report showed Medicaid spending on residents with disabilities could cost nearly $110,000 a year in an institution, as opposed to about $30,000 a year for a home-based setting.

A new report from the Florida Housing Coalition cited cases where state housing funding has helped residents with disabilities, including the Bradford County home as well as the Carter family in Broward County.

Adrienne Carter told the Housing Coalition that state housing funds helped her renovate her home to better take care of her 21-year-old son, Adrian, who was born with hydrocephalus, a neurological condition that has limited his ability to speak clearly or walk.

“I’m just really grateful for the program,” Adrienne Carter said. “I’m thankful it was there for me, and I hope it’s there for other people also.”

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