Affordable housing keeps getting more and more attention in the news. The city commission has hired a consultant to look at options available to the city and to recommend some of the better options according to their understanding of Sarasota's needs.
Recently Commissioner Ken Shelin has taken the lead in pushing for new ways to look at affordable housing. He has suggested that a portion of the Palm Ave. parking lot, that the city owns, be used for affordable housing. This is a laudable strategy for addressing the predicament in which we find ourselves.
However, what we need is an affordable housing policy before we start discussing strategies. What is our policy? We have over 2500 new condos either already built or in some phase of approval or construction. None of these would be considered affordable at this point. (Some may say that the city gave the 1350 Main project developers a density bonus so they would provide affordable units, we remain skeptical of this scheme). At this point we do not have a policy. We do have strategies, for instance, that include requiring a developer to pay if he does not include affordable housing. So far we have not seen any increase in affordable housing downtown.
In the past I have heard commissioners say that land is so expensive downtown that we should not even be thinking about affordable housing downtown. Maybe this is our "unofficial" policy.
A official policy might say something like: It is the policy of the City of Sarasota to create housing units in the downtown area that are affordable for professional and service workers who are employed in the downtown area.
This type of policy statement would then lead to a variety of strategies that would make this happen. One type strategy should include measurement of results to determine whether we are moving toward the policy objective. We do not have this. Maybe we will get there as a result of the ERA Consultant group input. On the other hand, since we have no way of knowing where we are or where we are heading, how will we know if we get there?
In the meantime the Commissioners spend their time discussing ways to get more affordable housing but have yet to define a vision, policy or measurable objective.
We have some objectives and strategies that might help to achieve the policy suggested above.
Objective: provide housing opportunities in the downtown area such that 10% of all new housing is affordable to entry level professional workers (4 year degree required) currently in downtown jobs.
Objective: provide housing opportunities in the downtown area such that 10% of all new housing is affordable to service employees working in the downtown area (clerks, waiters, etc.).
Strategies to achieve these objectives might include:
Utilize both the Palm Ave parking lot and the State St parking lot for a mix of parking and affordable housing. The land could be put into a land trust and modest (non-luxury) housing could be built. Controls on resale such as the Downtown Partnership has suggested could be utilized.
If further affordable housing is needed to meet the objective, other strategies could be developed. For example, require non-affordable condo builders to pay for all required parking, including public parking for retail in their building as well as employee parking. Do not use TIF dollars for parking, instead use public dollars only for additional affordable housing until the objective is reached.
Instead of giving developers incentives to build affordable housing, or allowing them to opt out by paying a fee, require them to build affordable units. And require them to develop techniques to assure perpetual affordability.
Another strategy might be to find new areas close to downtown that would be suitable for affordable housing – the Burns Square area might be such an area. The area east of Washington may be another area. These areas have either been given increased density (compared to the Downtown Master Plan) or are asking for increased density. Until affordable housing objectives are met, we should not be giving “bonuses” or “exceptions” to developers. The operative question is “what does the community get in return for an exception or bonus?"
When the affordable housing objectives are met, the strategy for further development could be adjusted as meets the city's vision, policy and objectives at that time.
Affordable housing is one of the most important issues we face at this time. We need our Commissioners to look at a policy and subsequent objectives that will address this issue.
This kind of action by the commissioners is difficult to undertake. Even though all of us indicate that affordable housing is a critical issue and we believe our quality of life will deteriorate unless it is addressed, politically this is tough for the commissioners. Unless they really hear the voice of the citizens, they will continue to try to please every one (particularly the special interest groups) and accountability will continue to fall by the wayside.