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Column

Housing bait-and-switch could be costly escape

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003


I can count on one hand the number of times Mary Aiken, at least in her capacity as Hernando County Commissioner, has said something with which I fully agree.

She did it again last week. So, like the headline "Man bites dog," the occurrence is unusual enough to repeat.

"Let's face it, this is a political hot potato. I get the sense that (the commissioners think) if we keep the potato up in the air long enough, it will cool down."

Aiken could have been talking about any number of issues before the commission. But in this instance, her remark referred to her colleagues' discussion about how to spend money set aside for affordable housing. More specifically, the discussion centered on how to not spend that money on multifamily housing.

With Aiken dissenting, the commission voted Tuesday to withhold more than $1-million that was earmarked for developers who had set aside a certain number of apartment complex units for low-income renters (annual earnings below $27,000). In exchange, the developers are allowed to use tax-free bonds to finance their ventures and/or receive matching, low-interest loans from the state.

Several developers have lined up to take advantage of the opportunity, and the commissioners have spent more than a year discussing the issue. But they did not dwell on it by choice; they were forced into the debate by residents in upscale developments near the proposed apartment sites. The commission held numerous forums and workshop meetings to explain how those sites came to be zoned multifamily, while also making clear the need to provide better housing for their working-class constituents.

But opponents did not let up. In fact, as Aiken pointed out Tuesday, that opposition was formidable enough to cost Chris Kingsley his commission seat last November. His ouster apparently hit home with the other commissioners who, despite their shortcomings, are quite adept at counting votes.

So, after being pursued by NIMBY-class affordable housing foes and recognizing the very real threat they one day could be thrown overboard with Kingsley, the commissioners found an escape hatch. All but Aiken jumped through it.

The commissioners decided in just a few minutes Tuesday to abandon their plan to invest in affordable multifamily housing. Instead, and even though the possibility had never been discussed publicly, four of them voted to allocate all that money in a program that provides zero percent loans to eligible first-time home buyers for down payments and closing costs.

It's a worthwhile program, because it encourages home ownership, and with that usually comes pride in ownership. It also allows those who would could not otherwise afford it the opportunity to make a low-risk, long-term financial investment.

If the commission had decided to take that route for all the right reasons, I'd applaud them. But their motive was not nearly that altruistic. They did this to distance themselves from the apartment controversy.

If that wasn't their intent, the commissioners would have at least considered dividing the money between the loan-assistance program and the apartment buildings. As it is, they've put all their eggs in one basket.

At the same time, they silenced critics by also assigning Housing Authority Director Donnie Singer to conduct a study to determine how much multifamily housing the market can bear. That will take months, of course, and probably push the decision past the commission's deadline for finalizing its budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Convenient, huh? Such decisions are easy when there aren't a bloc of registered voters (i.e., low-income renters) on the other side of the issue.

But the commission may not get off scot-free. There are a half-dozen apartment builders who are not pleased with the commission's budgetary bait-and-switch maneuver. Some have threatened legal action, alleging the commission may have violated the state Fair Housing Act by discriminating against developments based on the source of their funding. If they follow through with their threats, it could cost the county as much in legal fees as it has in the housing assistance fund.

In the meantime, the commissioners will keep tossing the hot potato Aiken described. Stay tuned to see if it turns out well done, or half-baked.

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