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Lawmakers defunded affordable housing. Florida voters might force them to take crisis seriously | Editorial

·4 min read

For years, we asked what it would take for lawmakers in Tallahassee to take the affordable-housing shortage South Florida — and most of the state — are facing seriously.

We got our answer this year. And it wasn’t the right response.

After raiding Florida’s affordable-housing trust fund — known as the Sadowski Trust Fund — for more than a decade to pay for unrelated things, the Legislature passed a bill to enshrine that practice into law. Under Senate Bill 2512, money previously slated for affordable housing will now be divided three ways: for sea-level rise mitigation and wastewater projects, in addition to affordable-housing programs. Lawmakers said the state had a limited amount of money for those priorities, even though Florida got billions from the federal government, and tax revenue this year surpassed expectations by $2 billion, making that change not only wrong, but unnecessary.

We have gotten used to the idea that we will just learn to live with whatever the Legislature shoves down our throats, unless lawsuits get legislation overturned. But, now, voters might get to have a say if a proposed constitutional amendment makes it on the 2022 ballot.

Realtors step up

Florida Realtors, the trade association representing Realtors, is bankrolling a ballot initiative that would undo SB 2512 and return to the original intent of the affordable-housing trust fund, the group told the Herald Editorial Board.

The proposal would direct 25 percent of the revenue from taxes levied on real estate transaction documents to programs addressing new construction, down- payment and closing-cost assistance, rehabilitation and financing of affordable-housing development. The amendment also would prohibit that money from being used for non-housing purposes and mandate that at least 65 percent be used to help people buy homes instead of renting.

Realtors were among the interest groups that worked to dedicate a portion of documentary-stamp tax proceeds to housing in 1992, when the state’s Sadowski Trust Fund was created.

Now, Florida Realtors has donated $5 million to pursuing the ballot initiative. President-elect Christina Pappas told the Board that the group had been watching the Legislature sweep more than $2 billion from the affordable housing trust since 2007, costing the state an estimated 94,000 housing units that weren’t built, according to the Florida Housing Coalition estimates.

This year’s bill was the last straw, Pappas said.

“These housing funds help people who are first responders, our teachers, our paramedics with down-payment assistance,” Pappas said. “And so, as Realtors, we see this firsthand how hard it can be for some of these great people to afford to buy homes.”

Floridians For Housing, the group sponsoring the proposed ballot initiative, needs to gather nearly 223,000 signatures to trigger a judicial review of the ballot language by the Florida Supreme Court and more than 891,000 by Feb. 1 to get it on the ballot. Then, it would need at least 60 percent of the vote to be added to the state Constitution.

Lawmakers fail to act

Ballot initiatives are a lousy way to make policy — that’s why we elect representatives to the Florida House and Senate. But, increasingly, it has become the only way to do things when the Legislature fails to act — as was the case with the minimum-wage increase and voting rights for ex-felons.

The housing ballot initiative is far from being a perfect solution.

By undoing the bill passed this year, it would take a steady source of money away from sea-level rise and wastewater projects such as septic-to-sewer conversions, also important needs. That would force lawmakers to find other funding sources for those projects, which is what they should’ve done from the beginning instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul. But there’s no guarantee they will actually do that.

On the other hand, when it comes to our affordable-housing needs, we need all the help we can get.

Miami-Dade currently needs 160,000 affordable rental units — and 210,000 will be needed by 2030, according to a study commissioned by Miami Homes for All.

By putting affordable housing in the state Constitution, the amendment would prevent future legislatures from sweeping the trust fund.

The bill passed this year did that, but at the expense of what will be available for this purpose. It would have been worse if Gov. Ron DeSantis and some lawmakers hadn’t pushed to increase the amount that’s locked in for housing to $209 million in 2021-22, the largest amount in 12 years.

While that’s progress, it’s nowhere near the more than $420 million DeSantis initially asked from lawmakers. (It’s worth pointing out DeSantis has sought to fully fund affordable housing over the years, but the Legislature controls the purse strings.)

We elect politicians so they can focus on what’s important. On this issue, that hasn’t happened.

Now Florida voters might have to resort to fixing this mess themselves.

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