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Affordable housing awaits state funds

A project in Spring Hill has its funding while the others wait in line with projects from around Florida.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002


Hernando County's affordable housing opponents are coming off a successful week, having won a round at the County Commission and given an earful to the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

But the commission's rejection of a loan commitment to the Spring Haven Apartments at Seven Hills, and the 350-plus turnout to oppose state-backed tax-exempt bonds for the Spring Haven and Barclay Forge complexes, hardly mark the end of the road.

Rather, all of the proposed apartment complexes in Hernando County will remain in the hopper through the summer, with no final resolution likely before September or October.

The complex most likely to become a reality this year is Bridgewater Apartments, behind the Applebee's restaurant on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill. Several departments are reviewing the developer's application for building permits, and all the financing is in place.

"My last talking with the developer (CED/Sandspur Housing), they're pretty much ready to break ground," said Donnie Singer, executive director of the Hernando County Housing Authority.

Singer noted that the project had been rated highly for state funding previously, but it took a couple of years for the money to become available.

The Spring Haven and Barclay Forge projects might follow a similar funding curve.

Each remains in the hunt for significant state support -- $15.2-million for Barclay Forge, on Barclay Avenue, and $7.7-million for Spring Haven. And the competition this year, the first for each, is stiff.

"There's probably three times as many vying as there is money to go around," said Tom Lang, the Orlando lawyer who listened to more than four hours of opposition to the two projects and will report his findings to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Specifically, Florida can issue up to $283-million in tax-exempt bonds this year. The Florida Housing Finance Corp., which decides who gets the bonds, has received 56 applications for $740-million worth of projects.

"That's why it's competitive, because there is always far more need than there is bond authority," agency spokeswoman Robyn Dixon said.

The reason, Lang explained, is because commercial lenders shy away from affordable housing development.

"Who is going to take the risk of failure of the project?" he said. "Very few lenders want to take project risk unless they have a longstanding relationship with the developer, and they are convinced the developer has the money available to pay off the loan if the project fails."

Limiting the renters by income simply increases the chance of failure, he noted.

All applications have gone through a complicated rating system, with 75 points being the best any project can receive. The time for fixing application errors ended Wednesday.

Ratings at the time showed that Barclay Forge earned 71 points, with 6 tiebreaker points. Fourteen projects had better scores.

The Spring Haven complex got a preliminary score of 67, with no tiebreaker points. Forty-one projects were ranked higher.

Final scores will be entered in July, Dixon said, with time for appeals afterward. She expected the agency to make its allocations no later than October. (The public may track the projects by visiting www.floridahousing.org.)

Before the order is settled, Lang said, credit underwriters and the State Board of Administration will review each for fiscal sufficiency to determine whether they are creditworthy. Gov. Bush also will decide whether to allow the state to use its tax-exempt status for the projects, as federal law allows him to do.

Lang suggested the governor probably will not weigh in unless the projects have a high enough rating to get the funding. However, he added, political wishes might come into play.

"Rarely do we have two legislators say they want a fact-finding hearing in the county where the projects are located," he said, referring to state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite and state Rep. David Russell, both Brooksville Republicans seeking election in the fall.

"Someone might push the governor to make a decision," Lang observed.

He said the County Commission's choice not to use its share of State Housing Initiatives Partnership funds for the Spring Haven project probably would have little impact on the governor's decision.

"It doesn't tell me that they're absolutely opposed to this project," Lang said.

A commission resolution against the state funding support, sent with a cover letter from the commission chairwoman, might have more sway, he said.

Commissioners had such a resolution prepared for them last week, but it never came to them for discussion or a vote.

Whatever happens, Singer said, it seems probable that the time for affordable housing has come to Hernando County. Even as some residents battle the known proposed projects, he said, more developers continue to explore the possibilities here. And projects that do not get state support this year might rise in the rankings in the years to come, he said.

"Hernando County has reached that population and that marketability," Singer said. "That's why you're seeing all the Wal-Marts and the restaurants coming in. The demand is here."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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