Friday, June 02, 2006

Needed: A Plan for Affordable Housing

The following was printed in today's Sarasota Herald Tribune:

Neighborhoods seek a citizens task force on affordable housing

The "Black Monday" rally at City Hall initiated by three city neighborhoods turned into an unprecedented gathering of 175 people from 21 city neighborhoods. It is a mistake to dismiss them with the usual labels -- "naysayers, not-in-my-backyard" -- and ignore the substance and extent of citizen dissatisfaction, particularly over lack of input into recent major changes to our city plan.

Every caring, responsible citizen places affordable housing as a top community priority. The neighborhood affected by the School Avenue project, already an area of affordable work-force housing, is actively and enthusiastically collaborating with the Community Housing Trust to bring more affordable units to its neighborhood.

Unbelievably, our city does not have an affordable housing master plan. Such a plan would analyze and develop goals for all affordable housing needs, assess the current stock of affordable housing, identify all city areas where more can be placed, assess infrastructure and traffic impact, and study best practices in other communities. Without a road map to guide them, officials are prone to fast-track piecemeal initiatives benefiting whatever interest group gets first in line.

The generous downtown density bonus, of great monetary benefit to developers, is predicted to generate only 300 affordable units over 10 years. Except for the city property on Palm Avenue and the State-Lemon parking lot, just sold for retail and high-end condos, downtown and the bayfront appear to have negligible affordable housing potential. It is obvious, however, that single-family neighborhoods of year-round residents will be asked to accommodate affordable housing.

And they will, if they respect the city's decision-making process and know they are part of that process. Neighborhoods will have to give until it hurts, but developers also must give until it hurts; 10-percent affordable units, as proposed by the city, does not hurt. As Mayor Fredd Atkins said in voting against the downtown density bonus amendment, "Not enough bang for the buck!"

Neighborhoods want a city leadership that not only requires compromise of them, but sees every sale of city property, change in land use, rezone, street vacation and variance as an opportunity to negotiate affordable housing units. This is not happening.

Our neighborhoods want straight talk. Told that the comprehensive plan amendments Sarasota sent to Tallahassee, after preliminary local approval, mean the city is "simply agreeing to ask for state review and comment on a piece of possible changes," they ask, "When has the state turned down a comprehensive plan amendment and when has a developer not regarded the commission vote on such an amendment as a land-use promise?" Neighborhoods agree with affordable housing experts that inclusivity is a must for success, not "in lieu of" housing separate from primary developments or segregated, stand-alone towers.

Respect for the guidance of the city's Planning Board and professional planning staff is fundamental to the deliberative process. Any substantive change in a project should generate a new staff and Planning Board review and recommendation. Respect for the recommendations of consultants also should be a given, in particular the Duany Plan, developed through a two-year, community-wide visioning process. That plan has been seriously compromised, without community input, a few short months after its approval. Breach of standard procedure, even if "legal" (as we were reminded), breeds mistrust and suspicion.

Neighborhoods have requested establishment of a Citizens Affordable Housing Initiative, a task force that will work to identify affordable housing opportunities and evaluate proposals. Who can better recognize potential infill sites, large and small, and make recommendations for compatibility (another word for respect and compromise) than the citizens themselves? With participation comes buy-in.

Quick fixes are not solutions. Proposals will be embraced, and initiated, by neighborhoods if realized through a sound, deliberative, inclusive process with our leaders utilizing the ideas and energies of citizens to create long-term, positive change.

Written by Gretchen Serrie. She has lived in this community with her family since 1972. Gretchen is a member of Save Our Sarasota.

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