School Board should partner up on housing

A Times Editorial
Published December 16, 2007

At the start of the year, government housing officials, loan officers, real estate agents, credit counselors, social workers, ministers and home builders gathered at a New Port Richey school and did a lot of hand-wringing over how to make the county's housing stock more affordable.

As 2007 draws toward a close, elected School Board members have a chance to move from talking to action on that issue, yet the hand-wringing continues.

The debate is understandable since this is uncharted territory. But, Tuesday evening the Pasco School Board, should move to ensure the hand wringing doesn't prevent hands from turning doorknobs to new homes.

The board should approve a plan to partner with a non-profit land trust and seek a $5-million state grant to build 50 so-called workforce homes, most of which will be town homes in west Pasco and 10 to 12 standalone single-family residences in Zephyrhills.

Essentially, the board must approve swapping 4 acres of unused land to sit beneath the town homes that will be sold to school district employees. The 4-acre lot is home to pine trees adjacent to Marlowe Elementary School just outside the New Port Richey city limits. The land is not earmarked for any school district purpose and is not listed as a site to be improved on the district's 10-year capital plan. Selling the land could net cash for other capital expenses (bus purchases or school construction) but cannot be used for salaries or employee benefits.

The district envisions the available housing, though severely limited, to be an attractive tool to help recruit and retain teachers and other district employees. Though the sale price of houses has dropped recently, data from earlier in the year showed a household income of $68,000 is needed to afford a median priced home in Pasco. The average teacher's salary in Pasco County last school year was less than $41,000. One of the plan's partners, Tom Smith of General Home Development in Dade City, estimated earlier this year that the public-private partnership could cut a $1,400 monthly mortgage payment to $850.

Under the plan, the state grant helps cover building costs. The homes are owned by the buyer, but the land remains property of the land trust, which would reduce the property tax and homeowners insurance costs absorbed by the buyer. When the homes are sold, the owners receive a portion of the accrued equity with the rest going back to the agency. The district land is leased to the land trust for 99 years with a deed restriction that the homes must be sold and resold to school or other public service employees.

Critics say the plan doesn't help enough people, doesn't account for prospective home buyers' inability to cover a down payment, and is being built in an area surrounded by other affordable housing options. They are valid observations, but exactly how can sitting on a vacant 4 acres be construed as a more productive option?

Putting an untapped asset to use for current and future employees is preferable to continued hand wringing.