By Elliott Johnson | The Palm Beach Post | March 31, 2021
Florida’s population continues to grow. According to a recent report by the Demographic Estimating Conference, Florida will be home to more than 300,000 additional residents per year, every year, for the next five years.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce calculates that we could be home to nearly 26 million residents by 2030— only nine years away. That’s larger than the current population of Australia.
This increase in population will further tax our capacity to increase an already strained supply of housing in all of our communities, pushing prices to stratospheric levels now seen in states like California, high-density metro areas like New York and Boston, or other areas in the United States that many Floridians used to call home. We’ll see more congestion and challenges to residents’ quality of life.
It is imperative that we implement good policy now to ensure some control over this future inevitability. Some of the tools we need already exist. Almost 30 years ago, the Florida Home Builders Association, Florida Realtors and Florida Legislature, seeing the need for locally focused housing solutions to address persistent and systemic problems for which funding would be difficult to obtain, crafted and passed the Sadowski Act.
Included was the establishment of the Florida State and Local Housing Trust Fund, which structured a levy on residential real estate sales. The money was intended to be mostly returned to donor counties and municipalities for targeted, maximally leveraged efforts to help address some of the persistent challenges identified by local community and business leaders.
Since then, Sadowski, and the Florida State and Local Housing Trust Fund have enjoyed broad and enthusiastic, support across all party lines. Although the fund, unfortunately, has been swept regularly to support the Florida General Revenue Fund, criticism of the housing fund’s intent and need is rare.
Under the trust fund’s rules, all counties and municipalities receiving Sadowski funding must have and implement unique Local Housing Assistance Plans (LHAPs), targeted to meet the special needs of the communities for which their LHAP is designed. Although many common elements may exist, each recipient has different specific needs, and local agencies provide better-targeted spending to address those needs.
For example, if a municipality’s LHAP calls for the mitigation and treatment of contaminated groundwater, in part by replacing old septic tanks with more modern systems to enhance access to affordable housing, that municipality can use the funds accordingly. No other fund or financial resource directed to affordable housing has the flexibility and local targeting that Sadowski does.
Recently, a bill was introduced to sweep funds allocated to local governments through the Florida State and Housing Trust Fund, and instead apply them to two new state programs. Rather than having them addressed locally through the existing Sadowski format, the state would redirect two-thirds of local communities’ rightfully entitled funds to specific programs that would be addressed on a statewide basis.
According to Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Spring Hill), taking these much-needed, locally-targeted funds would be “restructured distribution” — interesting term.
“We…have a tendency to create programs that sound great, but which we don’t actually fund,” said Simpson in announcing the plan. But that, ironically, is just what this plan proposes — on two sides of the equation: first, by taking resources already promised to local governments for their locally targeted use, and second, by failing to find a separate funding source specifically for the new programs.
This is just plain wrong.
As business leaders, and residents of Florida, we depend on a robust, diverse economy with inclusion, opportunity and fair access to upward socio-economic mobility — the American Dream — to better provide the kind of resiliency and demand necessary to ensure our continued prosperity. Access to housing is essential to the health of our communities.
The Florida State and Local Housing Trust Fund is a well-designed and critical tool that we can employ at local levels to help maintain this access. Sadowski is supported by a large and diverse group of organizations: Florida Realtors, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Bankers Association, AARP, Florida Association of Counties, Florida League of Cities, Florida Home Builders Association, Florida Veterans Foundation, and the Florida Council of Catholic Bishops are only a few.
Our legislature must allow local governments to use these funds as they have been designed. The Sadowski Fund is critical in maximizing local communities’ contributions to Florida’s larger economic engine. As necessary and noble it may be to address flooding in Florida due to sea-level rise and to mitigate environmental damage caused by antiquated or improperly designed residential waste systems, both challenges receive funding from other sources. Neither issue should be used to excuse raiding the Florida State and Local Housing Trust Fund — yet again — to feed new programs by picking low-hanging fruit from the neighbor’s tree.
While efforts to stem the effects of flooding and the contamination of groundwater need to be funded, taking money from another essential program, promised and affirmed by previous legislatures — and supported by our current governor, Ron DeSantis — to local governments for a different use is a bad idea. Doing so fails the fund’s increasingly critical original goals and cheats all Floridians of a much-needed local resource in the battle to maintain the health of our communities.
Our lawmakers should honor the design and intent of everyone who established the Sadowski Fund, the hard-working professionals who seek to efficiently leverage these dollars to maximally benefit our communities, the families who increasingly struggle to find affordable space to call home and, ultimately, all citizens of Florida. Our economy works best when it works for everyone.