Affordable housing is in shortage statewide, but Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers seem intent on making the problem worse, not better. Rising rents are squeezing Florida's low-income and elderly residents, who spend a larger and larger share of their limited income on rent. Affordable housing needs are only going to increase, particularly in Tampa Bay, and state leaders need to get serious about using readily available resources to meet the demand.
With $322 million sitting in the state's affordable housing trust funds, Scott and the Legislature should be busy figuring out how best to distribute those dollars to ease the housing shortage. All of those dollars.
Instead, Scott's proposed budget would skim $92 million from the housing trust funds and use the money for other purposes. Sweeping the trust funds, which are seeded by fees on real estate transactions, has become a nearly annual budget exercise in Tallahassee. Over the last 25 years, legislators have reallocated nearly $2 billion in money meant for housing to pet projects and other budget needs. It's no wonder Florida has an affordable housing crisis.
Nearly 1 million low-income households in Florida spend more than half their income on housing. Across the state, there are only 31 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely poor households. Locally, the share of low-income renters grew by 35 percent in 10 years even though total households in Tampa Bay increased by just 13 percent.
These trends are all moving in the same perilous direction. Condo towers and pricey subdivisions have begun rising again since the housing market recovered, but those developments don't help people at the bottom of the ladder. Florida's housing programs are a smart, sustainable tool for a low-wage state, helping people buy first-time homes and providing money to cap rents at an affordable level for full-time workers. It's not free housing.
On the bright side, Scott — ahead of an expected run for U.S. Senate — is proposing some substantial investments in housing programs. His budget includes $20 million for workforce housing in the Florida Keys, which was wiped out by Hurricane Irma; $96.3 million for Florida Housing Finance Corporation projects; and $34 million for the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, which works with local governments.
More and more, though, the burden is falling to cities and counties to make up for what the state has not spent on housing, and state lawmakers want to make it even harder for local governments to fill the void.
Last spring, the Legislature approved putting a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot raising the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000. That would mean a massive loss of property tax revenue for local governments, all to save the average homeowner less than $300 a year. County governments are already bracing for the hit, and affordable housing would be just one of the casualties. At least in Pinellas, voters smartly renewed the Penny for Pinellas local sales tax, which includes millions for land acquisition and infrastructure improvements to build affordable housing throughout the county. The Penny passed with nearly 83 percent of the vote, a message to Tallahassee that Floridians are willing to invest in services that improve their quality of life.
Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, have filed legislation that would prohibit the money in the trust fund from being used for anything but affordable housing. A new law should not be necessary because the statute establishing the trust funds made it clear where the money is supposed to go. Lawmakers, though, have shown time and again that they can't resist treating the funds like a piggy bank.
Florida needs thousands more affordable apartments and houses, primarily for full-time working adults whose incomes cannot keep up with soaring rents around the state. The need was urgent even before tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria decimated the island. The housing trust fund is a well-funded pot of money waiting to be used for this exact purpose. Lawmakers just need to actually spend it on housing.