Florida House bill earmarks affordable housing funds for two hurricane-response programs

An Avocado tree toppled by Hurricane Irma in a Florida neighborhood.

A House subcommittee has unanimously approved a proposal to funnel 20 percent of annual affordable housing trust fund revenues — more than $62 million this year — into two programs designed to expedite assistance to those left homeless or in damaged housing by a hurricane.

House Bill 987, sponsored by Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, was endorsed by the House Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday and will proceed next to the House Government Accountability Committee.

A companion Senate bill, SB 1328, sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, has passed through the Senate Community Affairs Committee and is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill would create a Hurricane Housing Recovery Program and Rental Recovery Loan Program and allow both to tap into the state’s William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund for emergency housing and repairs in hurricane response efforts. According to the state’s Department of Revenue, that would equate to about $62.82 million in fiscal year 2018.

The bill also includes measures to “incentivize” investment in affordable housing, including requiring state and local governments, municipal utilities and water districts to make “surplus” land available for affordable housing and requiring local governments to review affordable housing permit applications within 15 days and issue approvals or denials of permits and certificates of occupancy within 60 days.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, questioned if the new programs would “incent people not to buy homeowners insurance.” He said the state should be “making it easier for people to buy homeowners insurance” rather than subsidize those who don’t.

Cortes said the money would be available to homeowners and renters alike, regardless if they have insurance. He said it would be “a flawed premise” to forego purchasing homeowners insurance because the limited fund’s money is “only available until it runs out.”

Cortes said the programs won’t cover the most pressing needs of all who are at risk because of the rising costs of homeowners insurance across the state. He said his 78-year-old father owns his home, but is finding it difficult to afford homeowners insurance on a fixed income.

The bill originally included a provision that would have prohibited local governments from assessing affordable housing impact fees for five years, but the subcommittee unanimously approved an amendment restoring the fee, resolving objections from the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

The subcommittee also shot down in an 8-4 partisan vote an amendment supported by Democrats to require the state spend all money collected by the Sadowski trust fund on affordable housing programs.

For the 11th consecutive year, the House is proposing to “sweep” of money from the affordable housing fund for general fund expenditures. In the $87.2 billion proposed budget it adopted last week, the House commits $123 million in Sadowski money to affordable housing programs while diverting $182 million from the fund elsewhere.

The Senate’s proposed $87.3 billion budget dedicates the entire fund — projected to generate between $308 million and $322 million this year — to affordable housing programs.

SB 874, sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and HB 191, sponsored by Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, would ban future legislatures from “sweeping” housing funds to other needs.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, sponsored the “nine-figure amendment” because Shaw’s bill is unlikely to be heard during this session.

“It will not see the light of day,” he said, so attaching it as an amendment to Cortes’ bill will allow it “to peek its head out.”

The Sadowski trust fund was created in 1992 to leverage private and federal funding for affordable and workforce housing. It levies a 20-cent surcharge for every $100 paid on real estate transactions.

Since 2001, legislators have diverted more than $2 billion from the fund to plug budget holes and provide tax relief, according to a 2018 Senate Community Affairs Committee analysis.

Jenne said the fund has become “budgetary spackle.”

That may be its best use, Fine said, in challenging the notion that affordable housing programs benefit workforce and low-income residents. Studies show “these subsidies allow rich companies not to pay people” livable wages, he said.

Without affordable housing subsidies, Fine said, employers would be forced to pay people higher wages to be competitive.

Rep. Al Jacquet, D-West Palm Beach, disputed Fine’s assertion. The Sadowski fund was also created to keep people from being priced out of their own neighborhoods, he said.

“A trust fund is a trust fund,” Jacquet said. “I don’t know why we would continue to allow it to be swept.”

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