In todays SHT, Tom Tryon's editorial concerns the recent Downtown Partnership luncheon with a panel discussion on the topic: "What Happened to the Affordable Housing Overlay District (AHOD)".
He surveyed the room filled with real estate titans, lawyers, consultants and a couple of politicians. It was a power lunch, and he was among his own.
As he spoke, blaming state and local government for a shortage of affordable housing, heads in the audience nodded affirmatively. Like the butter passed around the dining tables, he was on a roll.
So when the question turned to how developers can build affordable housing and maintain profits -- despite the laws, regulations and bureaucratic interpretations that raise per-unit costs -- Mike Bennett said: "I bet a lot of the successful people in this room have broken the rules. I know there are a lot of cheaters in this room."
An attendee of the luncheon took the following notes:
Mike Bennett: Ever since I arrived in the state legislature, I've had 2 priorities - working on growth management and affordable housing issues. At the end of the day, we've just got to get govt. out of the way. Rezoning a property takes 2 years in Bradenton...making your carrying costs add nearly 20%. If we can fast-track rezoning and allow developers to build larger numbers of units at smaller sq. footage...we'll get affordable housing. Increase densities -- people like these Katrina Cottages and will live in 400 to 500 sq ft. units. I had a project of 758 sq. ft units in Manatee County -- 75% sold on pre-reservations and Manatee County told me that I couldn't do it b/c people wouldn't buy them.
Bruce Franklin: The loss of the AHOD was an embarrassment. We need to get outcomes rather than be paralyzed by the process. Hey Mike -- DCA is holding us up what can you do?
Fredd Atkins: I'm sick and tired of this. Way too long in doing anything. 20 years of TIF and not one thing affordable.
That said, we' ve got 4 major projects on the table right now: Cohen Way, Housing Authority project, Vengroff project, School Ave project.
So stop crying. Stop asking why it shouldn't be done and let's get it done.
[Perhaps knowing his audience, Fredd didn't make any reference to the AHOD not benefitting anyone or any of his similar, very critical comments heard during this month's earlier hearing where he voted against it. Nor did he discuss the fact that there is no Vengroff project -- but just an idea.]
Martina Guilfoil: I think on the contrary to Mike, we need govt in the way to make sure that the wheels are greased and moving to produce true affordable housing. We've got to learn what we don't know that we don't know -- there's lots of communities across the country doing this and we've got to get out of our box and start looking at some of this. I'm here to tell you today that not everything's bad here. Where I come from in LA, they're selling 500 sq. ft places in the valley for 1/2 million dollars.
Craig Colburn: What should the City do next? I heard grumblings around town that staff didn't support this, even though they went to the table that they did support it. How do we overcome that?
FAtkins: We're telling the City Manager and all City Depts. the same thing -- we want affordable housing. The City Commission is the problem in this whole process and if there's someone to blame, it's us.
MBennett: It's not the planning staff's fault. We just passed a new law 3 months ago that gives a lot more flexibility around DCA's contention with transportation concurrency -- and it's probably that planning staff is still not even aware of all of the features of this law. For instance, if you do something as simple as add a bus route or increase the number of taxis, you can get an exception and keep moving forward.
I'll bet if we break some rules, that we can get it done. Really, the only way you succeed is by breaking rules. (nervous laughter and gasps)
CColburn: Well, Mike, Cheaters never win.
MBennett: I don't know about that, I know a lot of cheaters in this room who are pretty successful. (laughter and gasps)
At the end of the day, we need a better solution. Sarasota County's current solution for affordable housing is called "DeSoto County". We've got to get our wives, neighbors, and friends to run for public office so these things can start to be addressed. My $30k salary doesn't even cover my Scotch tab, but I feel it's important to participate in this discussion.
One of the favorite parts of my job is to sit on the JASPY (sp) committee -- b/c it's fun. I get to go over to DCA and demand that they show me the statutes and background on why they'll object to some of these development proposals. I wish I had known about DCA's opposition to the AHOD b/c I would've been over there demanding to see all of this information on traffic concurrency.
CColburn: Fredd -- how do you overcome Nimbyism? We're talking about the Downtown urban area -- this is a DTPartnership event...we're not talking about the County. I'm from Atlanta and saw the effects on me, my family, staff members from suffering long commutes that you get with sprawl.
[I guess in the DTP world, all of the City of Sarasota now is part of the Downtown.]
FAtkins: I'm here to say that you all can drag me through this so we can get housing...I'll be the leader. If you bring it to the table, dare us to approve it. I hate meetings....If I was paid for all of these meetings on ideas for affordable housing, I'd be a rich man. Bring it to the table.
[In between questions while panelists were answering, CColburn went to Chris Brown (1350 Main) and asked him to get up and ask a question to the panel, Chris agreed to do so and Craig told him what to ask.]
Chris Brown: Bruce let me ask you a question -- if you were given the opportunity to re-write the downtown code, so we can do things like get greater density for smaller units, could you do that and give it to Mayor Atkins to enact into legislation.
BFranklin: Yes. (paraphrase).
Kelly Kirschner: A question for Senator Bennett -- what can you tell us about the Sadowski funds and why when we have such a crisis right now, that we're not doing more to release the $900+ million that's there, as opposed to less than the 1/3rd that's been released now.
MBennett: That's a good question. I fought as hard as I could to get the affordable housing bill through this past session and if we pushed too hard on the Sadowski dollars, the governor said he would veto it. We went as far as we could. Also, the money we gave out last year, still hasn't been used. Everyone's stuck in zoning and permitting -- so it makes no sense to give out much more money now b/c we're still waiting for them to spend last year's money.
KKirschner: A follow-up then -- when you look at the Community Housing Trust -- it's got a bank balance of about $0 -- and we've got a floundering real estate market with housing inventory bursting at the seems. When we talk about smart growth, no sprawl, n'hood friendly, wouldn't it be a win/win to endow the CHT with up to $50 million or whatever it may be to start buying up existing stock and put it into a perpetually affordable pool immediately?
MBennett: Honestly, I'd rather give that money to someone like my friend Harvey. Harvey - how many affordable rentals have you got now -- 1300? You see that's something.
Ian Black: Mike - you didn't answer Kelly's question. Could we use Sadowski to fund the CHT?
MBennett: We could if they'd ask for it. They haven't asked for it. They have to submit a proposal. Plus, the governor said he'd veto it if it were above what we asked to distribute. If you want this to change, elect the right governor this November.
Tryon ends his editorial by giving some excellent advice. Advice we should all pay attention to:
The challenge is to reject the false choice between playing by the rules and creating affordable housing. Doing so will require rebutting and refuting, through words and deeds, negative perceptions -- about housing, neighborhoods, government, developers -- that make building trust and partnerships so difficult.
Bennett could ditch the swagger that puts neighborhoods on the defensive, drop the "get government out of the way" mantra and, for example, lead a legislative effort to direct affordable-housing trust funds to community-based initiatives that promote perpetual affordability.
Franklin, the planner, advocated changing the local culture from one that says "no," to one that asks "how to?"
We know how not to. Piecemeal proposals and operating on the cheap haven't worked. The zero-sum political game that pits process vs. outcomes hasn't worked, either.
Guilfoil came to Florida in February from California, where housing prices are so high that she views the challenges here as opportunities. If Sarasota, in particular, wants to replace cynicism about housing with optimism, she deserves a bigger stage and a broad audience willing to listen and learn.