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Businesses brainstorm on housing quandary

The summit of the state chamber centers on how to make homes affordable for workers.

By JAMES THORNER
Published September 16, 2006


Florida's businesses want to ease the affordable housing shortage for self-interested reasons: Happy workers need a roof over their heads, preferably a roof they own rather than rent.

On Friday, as the Florida Chamber of Commerce convened a summit on "affordable living" at the Tampa Convention Center, one statistical mismatch took center stage:

Florida's medium home price has vaulted 80 percent, from $137,800 to $247,800, while median family income has limped ahead 1.4 percent, from $51,800 to $52,550. It all happened between 2002 and 2005.

"Can Florida be competitive if we don't solve this issue?" said John Zumwalt, chief executive of Tampa engineering firm PBS&J and head of the Florida Chamber Foundation. "It used to be a low income issue. Now it's a middle income issue."

But Friday's summit was no mere grievance session. Many of the 500 attendees were there to shop solutions based not on handouts from Washington, D.C., but on public-private partnerships that rely on market incentives:

- Community Land Trusts: To create a permanent stock of affordable housing in fast-appreciating neighborhoods, localities establish trusts to buy land on which developers build. Low- or middle-income buyers couldn't take advantage of a hot market to resell the house for big bucks. Instead, they would have to resell to income-targeted buyers and accept relatively modest gains from the sale.

- Employer Assisted Housing: In a modern variant of the old mill town, employers - be they hospitals, school districts or banks - help their workers buy homes with loans or housing allowances. Repayment could be waived provided a worker stays on the job a set number of years. The Pinellas County School District is experimenting with such an idea to house its teachers. So is the Orlando Police Department.

- Inclusionary Zoning: Communities encourage, and in some cases compel, developers to reserve a small percentage of their project for lower-priced homes. In return, communities could speed a developer's project through permitting, cut fees and waive regulations like mandatory sidewalks and landscaped buffers that builders consider onerous.

- In-fill Development: This is a way to use vacant or blighted tracts in already developed areas. Again, the developer would expect incentives from government to take the plunge. In the case of Tampa's urban redevelopment districts, property taxes are retained in the neighborhoods to help build up the housing stock.

Summit speakers on Friday advocated experimentation rather than over-regulation. For John Adams, president of Enterprise Florida, the state holds plenty of successful examples, including Manatee County, where builders have grabbed incentives to deliver more than 2,000 lower cost homes.

"Stick to Florida," Adams said. "I really don't care how they do it in Boston or San Francisco."

Inseparable from the issue of housing affordability are complaints about the doubling and tripling of property insurance premiums and real estate taxes.

At the summit's lunchtime keynote address, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings promised to tackle the insurance crisis before she and Gov. Jeb Bush leave office in December. The pair could call a special legislative session this fall. But Jennings admitted there's only so much the government can do since eight hurricanes hit Florida.

"That cheap insurance isn't coming back," she said. "But hopefully we can get you reasonable insurance."

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313.

[Last modified September 15, 2006, 22:43:05]


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