Florida Lawmakers File Bill to Prevent State From Raiding Affordable-Housing Fund

Florida Lawmakers File Bill to Prevent State From Raiding Affordable-Housing Fund
Photo by Neil Williamson / Flickr
Miami-Dade County is not affordable. Rent is astronomical compared to the median income. But in many cases, lawmakers are hamstrung. They can force developers to set aside affordable units, but they can't build  complexes with reasonable rents.

That is, in part, because state lawmakers have, over the past decade, raided nearly $2 billion from Florida's major affordable-housing program, the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, named for a Democratic state leader and advocate for the poor who died in a 1992 plane crash. The state has spent that money on a bunch of other, unrelated items rather than helping low- and middle-earners afford homes. And now a group of South Florida lawmakers has filed a bill that seeks to return some of that diverted money to the housing fund.

“The creation of affordable housing in our state is imperative for the success of Florida’s working families,” state Sen. Lori Berman, a Boynton Beach Democrat, said today in a news release. “No one should have to choose between paying for their rent or putting food on the table. By protecting the dollars in the Sadowski Trust Fund, we are taking a critical step in ensuring a prosperous future for all Floridians.”

Two South Florida Democrats — Boca Raton Rep. Tina Polsky and Miami Rep. Kionne McGhee — have filed a companion bill in the state House. The bill would require other state agencies to justify why or how they deserved money transferred from the housing fund. If the agencies can't prove the money met its intended purpose, the agencies would be forced to repay it within five years. It's unclear if the law would be applied retroactively.

In 2017, veteran Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas explained that more than 25 years ago, the state began adding a 10 percent surcharge on real-estate transactions to fund affordable home-building across Florida. But lawmakers began sweeping that money away under Gov. Jeb Bush. When Klas wrote her story, lawmakers had blown more than $1.3 billion from the fund on projects such as tax breaks and balancing the state budget.

A few housing experts told the Herald that, had the program been fully funded, the state could have built more than 12,000 affordable homes and housed nearly 93,000 people.

Though the bill might seem like a pie-in-the-sky moonshot from state Democrats, there is a possibility Republicans will back it. Gov. Ron DeSantis has already backed a budget that prevents state lawmakers from diverting money from the Sadowski Fund this year. In 2018, lawmakers blew $182 million of the then-$314 million total on non-housing-related projects.

Miami, specifically, needs the cash. Numerous studies have confirmed area residents spend some of the highest shares of their income on rent in America. More millennials live with their parents in South Florida than any other area of the nation. Miami-Dade has built a truly absurd number of luxury, million-dollar-plus condo complexes while neglecting to add affordable units. (Local lawmakers are also banned from raising city minimum wages — only the state can do that, and the hard-right Florida Legislature refuses to back minimum-wage hikes.) The City of Miami recently passed a potentially game-changing proposal that forces builders in the Omni neighborhood to include affordable units.

“While we are very pleased that Governor DeSantis has indicated that the Sadowski Fund will not be raided this year, this legislation will ensure that we hold the Legislature accountable to use the money for its intended purpose,” Representative Polsky says. “I believe the funds should be reimbursed if swept so that desperately needed affordable housing in all of Florida, and specifically in areas of urgent need, remain a priority in the budget.”
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.