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State, feds pressured to spend money on affordable housing

State, feds pressured to spend money on affordable housing


ORLANDO, Fla. – Nov. 8, 2017 – With tens of thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees arriving in Florida, pressures have mounted for state and federal governments to boost spending on affordable housing.

At the state level, Florida Realtors this week pushed legislators to fully fund affordable housing with real-estate sales taxes earmarked for housing. Lawmakers in recent years have spent much of that money on general operating costs to keep the government running.

Sen. David Simmons said the state will face "major, major issues" prioritizing spending not just for new housing demands but also for education to serve the new influx. More than 90,000 people have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico through Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Port Everglades since Oct. 3, according to the state.

"We have not even yet begun to feel the full impact of the migration of these citizens of the United States into the state of Florida," said Simmons, R-Longwood. "Obviously, we are going to have to put together a plan that will address the challenges."

On the national front, elected officials have proposed a Disaster Displacement Act that would provide federal housing vouchers to Puerto Rican evacuees. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson filed a bill to increase Section 8 housing vouchers, which subsidize rents for low-income evacuees.

"We have tens of thousands of evacuees here in Florida who are struggling to find an affordable place to live," said Nelson, D-Fla. "This bill will help make more affordable housing available in the communities that need it the most."

The proposed federal measure would empower local housing authorities, such as Orlando's and those in Orange and Seminole counties, to tap added funds from a number of federal housing programs.

The voucher measure has been supported by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins. It is headed to the Senate Finance Committee. The program allows qualified renters to pay only 30 percent of their adjusted income for rent and utilities. The federal government pays the rest to landlords. To qualify, evacuees must earn less than 50 percent of the area's median income. In the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford area, renters could earn no more than $29,200 per year.

Meanwhile, the wrangling has begun over the state's affordable housing funds, which are generated by a special tax on real estate sales. Every year, the money is divvied up to local governments based on a formula, but the Legislature determines how much goes to housing needs and how much goes to help shore up the overall budget. More than half of the $294 million earmarked for Florida housing needs during the last legislative session was spent on other needs.

This week, the state's leading real estate association released a study on the wider economic impacts of spending on affordable housing. The study by Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting showed how that affordable-housing dollars benefit more than low-income renters by circulating through property management companies, construction firms and other industries.

In Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, the state has spent about three quarters of a billion dollars on affordable housing programs over a decade-long period that ended last year. Those funds multiplied at least four-fold as they trickled through businesses the region, researchers reported.

"The state and local government housing trust funds do so much good for so many, but it is not always easy to see their direct impact both on people and the economy," said Cheryl Lambert, a real estate agent from Inverness and former chair of an association committee on workforce housing.

Central Florida congressional members Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto, both Democrats, this week co-sponsored a related House bill aimed at shoring up housing for evacuees. Murphy compared the aid with federal assistance approved a decade ago to assist evacuees of Hurricane Katrina.

"Florida is doing the right thing by taking in thousands of our fellow American citizens whose lives were uprooted as a result of Hurricane Maria, and the federal government should have our state's back," she said.