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Housing aid on chopping block

The governor's proposed channeling of trust fund dollars away from low-income housing would sharply curtail the Home Buyer Assistance Program.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003


For many families, scraping together several thousand dollars for a down payment on a home can be a struggle.

And it could get even harder in the coming year, with millions of dollars in low-income housing assistance on the chopping block in Tallahassee.

Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget for next year would cut between $40-million and $50-million from the State Housing Incentive Partnership, or SHIP, a $150-million program that helps counties provide homes for low-income families.

Pasco County received $3.5-million from that pot of money this year, making it the 10th largest recipient in the state, said George Romagnoli, the county's acting community development manager.

Under Bush's proposed budget, the county's share would drop between $500,000 and $750,000, he said. The county would be able to help only 100 families through the Home Buyer Assistance Program, half as many as the previous year, he said.

The home buyer program provides low-interest loans to cover the down payment and closing costs for low-income families buying a new home.

"The impact is going to hit us pretty hard," Romagnoli said. "It's very disappointing."

Bush repeatedly described his proposed budget as "tough" when he unveiled it two weeks ago. It cuts millions of dollars from universities, juvenile crime prevention and health care for the poor while cutting overall taxes by about $600-million.

To help cover expenses, Bush proposes to shift about $1.5-billion from 34 trust funds -- pools of money earmarked for specific uses -- into the general budget. One of those trust funds pays for housing programs under SHIP.

The dollars come from a documentary stamp tax created in 1992 for the sole purpose of paying for housing projects, Romagnoli said. Under Bush's proposal, the money would go into the general fund for use on any project, and a smaller SHIP budget would be covered by the general fund.

Pasco County's Home Buyer Assistance Program would take the hardest hit, but other programs would be affected, too, Romagnoli said.

In several areas targeted for redevelopment, such as Tommytown and East Brown Acres, the county would have fewer dollars to lend homeowners replacing their deteriorating homes, Romagnoli said. Instead of subsidizing the entire cost of building a new home, he said, the county loan might cover only half the bill.

The impact would also go beyond the low-income families unable to buy homes, Romagnoli said.

Tom Smith, owner of General Home Development in Dade City, figures about half of the new homes he builds in Pasco and Pinellas counties go to families using SHIP dollars.

Bush's proposal to cut SHIP funding would have a domino effect, Smith said. Fewer families could afford to buy a home. Local contractors, building material suppliers and real estate agents would do less business. And local governments would see less growth in their tax base because fewer new homes would be built, Smith said.

"It would be very hard on the industry in general," he said.

Realtors, contractors and county officials are joining the Florida Association of Counties and Florida League of Cities to fight the proposal, Romagnoli said.

"The governor had to make a lot of tough decisions. There were cuts all over the place," Romagnoli said. "I think that we can show that, especially in Pasco County, it helps the economy, it fights poverty and provides economic development.

"It's more than a housing program."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet covers social services in Pasco County. She can be reached at (352) 521-5757 ext. 23 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. Her e-mail address is bhall@sptimes.com .

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