Friday, August 12 2022

Finally, one thing we all agree on: Sarasota needs affordable housing. Now.

In these polarized and divisive times, when even a cat video on YouTube can produce toxic viral debate, it seems impossible that the people of Sarasota County can agree on anything.

But in recent conversations – with a business owner desperate for employees; a service worker burning hard-earned minimum wage on gasoline to get around; a university graduate forced to return home after accepting a “first job” salary; a wealthy condo dweller who wants the downtown homeless population to die out; and a family whose rent was doubling from month to month – I always heard the same thing:

What Sarasota needs most is affordable housing.

“Affordable housing has gone from a moral dilemma to an existential threat to our economy,” said Jon Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation at a recent conference on the affordable housing crisis given at the Charlotte County Democratic Progressive Caucus.

“It’s now the No. 1 concern of people in the community,” Thaxton said.

It’s worth more than an hour of your time to listen to Thaxton’s speech, which includes an in-depth analysis of the forces that have created our housing crisis, as well as a roadmap for getting out of it.

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The fourth-generation Sarasota native, who has studied the subject for decades, explains how our market’s preference for high-end housing that maximizes developer profits (and increases the need for service workers) has created demand for housing for the labor force which dwarfs the supply. The imbalance fuels traffic, pollution, homelessness and mental health issues and strains non-profit and government budgets.

Despite the comprehensive plan’s multiple policies intended to address affordable housing, according to Thaxton’s research, “not a single [affordable housing] unity was never created or maintained by just one of these policies. Zero.” More of the same approach, he says, will only dig deeper into the housing hole.

While city and county leaders have long asserted that affordable housing is a top priority, their actions have been piecemeal, fragmented and woefully inadequate. On their own, solitary concepts like ADUs (affordable housing), impact fee reductions, or density increases can play a role in mitigating the crisis, but they will never produce the kind of numbers units we need – and hardly ever for residents with the lowest incomes. brackets.

Take the plan to the Sarasota City Commission this week, which proposes removing building heights from the overall plan to allow for greater downtown density, in exchange for an undetermined number of “affordable” units. These units would be priced at 120% of the area median income (AMI), which translates to a mortgage approaching $400,000 or a rent of over $2,300 per month. Given that “affordable” housing is defined as requiring less than 30% of an individual or family’s gross income, how many service workers do you know who would qualify?

In case you missed it:How zoning could bring Sarasota more affordable housing

The plan also extends administrative approval of development plans downtown (i.e. with little or no public input or consent), which has helped bring in the giant upscale condominiums that have exacerbated the problem in the first place.

The commission is also considering establishing a zoning overlay district in part of the Park East neighborhood (north of Fruitville Road and east of US 301), which is threatened by gentrification that has engulfed neighboring areas. like Gillespie Park. This would allow construction of duplexes, triplexes and other multi-family dwellings in a downtown corridor neighborhood currently zoned for single-family homes.

This “missing middle” housing – a term used to describe multi-unit or cluster units that meet the demand for urban, walkable living for low-wage workers – is exactly what we need, albeit at a much larger scale than in this little pocket. Yet because Park East is in the downtown corridor, the overlay would come with administrative approval, which cuts the public out of the equation and could sabotage the proposal.

Carrie Seidman

Instead of this patchwork approach, Thaxton advocates treating affordable housing as infrastructure – like our streets, libraries or parks. As such, it needs a long-term, coordinated and comprehensive strategy that is demand-driven, driven by data, research and best practices, and monitored with constant adjustment.

It requires a recurring source of funding to provide grants and would greatly benefit from the creation of a dedicated city/county position staffed by an expert with in-depth knowledge of affordable housing practices, instruments and finance.

Not only could this approach help build the kind of urban landscape that Sarasota aspires to – with a mix of residents, residences, businesses and activities – but it represents the best chance to begin to reverse a crisis that has lasted for decades. decades and which will take decades to resolve.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Thaxton said. “It’s taken Sarasota 30 years to get into this hole and we’re not going to come out of it overnight.”

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at [email protected] or (505) 238-0392.

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