Many of the mobile homes and other rentals that housed service workers in the Florida Keys were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The Sadowski affordable housing trust funds could help, but the Florida Legislature keeps using the money for other things. (Taimy Alvarez/Sun Sentinel)
Ron DeSantis has cast himself as a different kind of governor from his recent predecessors. Here’s a way he can demonstrate that difference.
Back in 1992, when Tallahassee was known for good-government ideas, the Legislature created the William F. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds to help lower-income Floridians stabilize their lives. Legislators named the program for a former colleague who had been the state’s top growth management official before dying in a plane crash the year before.
The program charges a small fee on real estate transactions to help counties and cities create quality affordable housing, including rental properties. Most of the money goes toward down payments, often the biggest obstacle for first-time homebuyers. According to the Sadowski Housing Coalition, roughly 350,000 people have benefited.
A rare coalition, ranging from builders, to Realtors, to environmental groups, has long supported the Sadowski program. So what’s the problem? Shortsighted politicians who want to spend the money elsewhere.
In the last 20 years, governors and legislators have raided roughly $2.2 billion from the Sadowski funds to balance the budget. Last year, for example, they raided $182 million for school security. Since 2012, they’ve made $1.2 billion worth of “sweeps,” as Tallahassee calls them.
And in the record-setting $91-billion state budget lawmakers just approved for next year, they raided another $125 million from the affordable housing trust funds to spend on other things.
In a letter last week, the Sadowski Coalition asked Gov. DeSantis to veto this sweep. CEO Jaimie Ross notes that the governor proposed no raid in his suggested budget. Ross wants DeSantis to stop “normalizing” the transfer of affordable housing money to general revenue.
Notably, the coalition does not oppose proper uses of the trust funds. The budget includes $115 million for Hurricane Michael housing recovery in the Panhandle and $85 million for affordable housing needs statewide.
With property values rising impressively over the last decade, the state’s affordable housing crisis has worsened. And this year the Legislature weakened the ability of local governments to require that developers include affordable housing in their projects.
Now consider that 44 percent of the state’s families are poor or live paycheck to paycheck, according to the United Way of Florida’s recent report. For the working poor, stable housing would reduce the chances of falling into poverty.
The veto should be an easy call for a business-focused governor like DeSantis. It puts property on the tax rolls. The program boosts the economy. According to the coalition, every Sadowski dollar generates six times that much, through leveraging federal and state grants.
A veto would be important symbolically, too. Plus, as Ross notes in her letter, it could help create a model post-hurricane housing recovery program.
After Hurricane Irma struck the Keys in 2017, the biggest immediate need was housing for hospitality workers who wouldn’t get income for weeks or months. In the Panhandle, relief after Hurricane Michael has been hung up because of President Trump’s refusal to approve adequate aid for Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria.
Yet because wages are not keeping up, the increase in property values keeps pushing housing more and more out of the reach for middle-class Floridians. The state ranks 46th in teacher pay. Wages in tourism-heavy Orlando are the lowest of any large American city.
As we noted, the Sadowski program began in an era when the Legislature believed government action could benefit society. The affordable housing program shows how well a public-private partnership can work.
DeSantis should keep that $125 million in the Sadowski funds. Then he should make that partnership realize its full potential for Florida.