GOVERNMENT WATCH by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor
After two years of planning and the last six months of discussion and debate, Sarasota County is moving ahead with a plan to reward developers who voluntarily build what the county defines as affordable housing: The more they build, the more bonuses they can get from the county.
The voluntary plan is a relief to many builders who were concerned the county was going to adopt mandatory "inclusionary zoning," a plan that would mandate developers to build and price homes under market value or pay a fine, with the money going to a pool to be used for affordable housing programs. Commissioners voted unanimously April 26 to direct staff to research how to put the voluntary plan into the zoning code.
Still, a county spokesman said they are leaving mandatory rules as an option, if the voluntary program doesn't go far enough toward solving the problem.
The voluntary plan includes several ways builders can benefit from including lower costing homes in a development, such as a "density bonus" (more homes per acre than otherwise allowed), lower impact fees and less time spent going through permitting and other bureaucratic hurdles. Larry Arnold, the general manager for business services in the public works department, says the bonuses can be expanded and defined as the program evolves.
Score the vote a win for developers and builders. Mandatory inclusionary zoning, favored by some affordable housing advocates, has proven to be a tough sell, both in Florida and nationwide. Leon County in Tallahassee and Monroe County in Key West are the only government entities in Florida to have mandated inclusionary zoning. In Tallahassee, a group of developers, builders, Realtors and the Florida Home Builders Association sued the city earlier this year, saying the plan was unconstitutional because it violates due process and forces an unlawful tax.
Studies from Reason, a California-based public policy organization, also have shown that inclusionary zoning has had the opposite effect of its intentions: Instead of providing low-coast housing, the policies led to higher prices. One Reason study showed that in 45 San Francisco area communities where inclusionary zoning was made mandatory, the price of new homes went up by $22,000 to $44,000. A second study reported increases of $33,000 to $66,000 per home in Southern California areas that mandated inclusionary zoning.
Going the voluntary route brings Sarasota County closer to its neighbor, Manatee County. Manatee has had a successful voluntary inclusionary zoning plan in place for the past year. Builders get reduced processing times and cuts in fees in return for setting aside at least 25% of their inventory in the affordable range - from $130,000 to $160,000.
Ellenton-based deMorgan Communities has been working on Oak View, a 198-home project in Palmetto, Manatee County, which includes 50 homes in the affordable range. Derrick Barwick, who has been leading parts of the project, says 18 homes are set at $145,000 and 32 homes are either going to be $130,000 or $160,000.
Barwick says the best business perk deMorgan gets for the project is fast tracking; it's taking six to eight months for the project to get permits as opposed to the normal 12 to 18 months. Barwick adds that the social factor of helping out the community is a big draw, too, when deciding to do a project with affordable housing.
While Sarasota County moved a step closer to adopting its voluntary affordable housing program, the city of Sarasota has been moving ahead with its own plan. Earlier this month city commissioners voted 3-2 to send a proposal for density bonuses to the state for approval. Similar to voluntary programs, the city plan would allow developers to build at higher densities downtown if some of their units fall into the affordable housing range.
In Lee County, a leading economic development group called the Horizon Council plans a community symposium on workforce housing June 22 in Fort Myers. It also has formed a task force to study the issue. Organizers expect as many as 400 people from the private and public sectors will attend. Details will be posted on the council's Web site at www.leecountybusiness.com.
Whether any of these incentive plans will amount to a meaningful increase in the supply of "workforce housing" is mostly a guess at this point. Builders and public officials don't know. But if you ask Michael Reitman, executive vice president of the Lee Building Industry Association, for a solution, his response is a common one: allow higher densities on residential land. Speeding up permit applications would help too, he says, adding, "The only way it's going to be solved and addressed is going to be through the free enterprise system."
(Lee/Collier Editor Jean Gruss contributed to this story).
What is affordable housing?
Sarasota County defines it as homes for individuals or families where the total household income is 80% or less of the area's median income. For example, for a family of four, that would be up to $44,700 in income with a home costing no more than $154,657.
In 2005 in Sarasota County, the median price for a single-family home was $321,400.