Desperately Seeking Housing

By staff March 1, 2006

In Sarasota problems come and go, even if no solutions are found. Last summer, it was parking! Lots of hot air was expended, and months later we're not ahead one additional space. But parking! is not on the agenda anymore. People grew bored when it became clear nothing was going to happen.

Now the problem is affordable housing! More verbal energy is building, but solutions again are far from sight. People will soon become bored, and talk will turn to the latest problem du jour.

The city wrestled with one problem for decades-downtown decay-before solutions emerged. The city invested time and attention and eventually found a successful solution that in turn created the parking and affordable housing predicaments. By promoting Sarasota's epicurean lifestyle with a revitalized downtown, past and present city commissions inadvertently intensified problems in other areas.

In 1986 the city used a new state law to establish a Community Redevelopment Agency to fight urban blight and funded its operations with a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. The agency, comprised of the five city commissioners, could attack "slum and blight" downtown with TIF money. The TIF district turned into a gold mine.

TIF money is property tax money paid by property owners in a defined downtown area. In that blighted area, the county agreed its property tax receipts would be frozen at the 1986 level, while the city would take everything over that amount-plus the additional city property taxes, of course. The first year of the TIF, the city took in $62,000 extra. In fiscal year 2004-2005, the "extra" was $3.87 million.

As a fund-raising technique, the TIF is a spectacular success. By the end of last year the TIF district had generated a total of $15.8 million "extra." A fraction of that money, some $1.2 million, benefited consultants and lawyers. Another $2.2 million went to Whole Foods for incentives ($1.6 million) and the parking garage ($634,000). The Palm Avenue parking garage, finished in 2000 for $2.1 million, was the biggest capital expense so far; other big tickets were for the redevelopment office and Links Plaza improvements.

Palm Avenue customers and tony downtown condo residents shopping at Whole Foods are the big TIF winners so far, and bigger winners are on the horizon. The developers of the Pineapple Square project have "suggested" they receive $17 million ($8 million in "donated" city land for the current State Street parking lot, and millions more in TIF money for "incentives"). More "suggestions" are certain to come as word leaks out that the city has cash to burn.

If you make less than $25,000 per year, it's doubtful you're reading this magazine, because you're too busy parking cars, bussing tables, repairing roofs or mowing lawns. If you are reading this magazine, it is likely you need people to park your car, bus your table, repair your roof and mow your lawn. How many of these people, each week, do you need to help you? And where do these vital epicurean-supporters sleep?

For those who skipped Greek class, an epicurean is someone devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially from food and drink. In other words, somebody who enjoys a night on the town-the same "drink-and-a-show" crowd Sarasota has cultivated for decades. Sarasota forever (at least after its Scots pioneers passed on) caters to its epicures with new, exciting, tasty, intellectual venues. But where do the people who make it all happen sleep?

The city is now engaged in helping another business relocate here, luring Wal-Mart-the world's largest retailer-to a Newtown site with $2 million, this time from regular (non-TIF) tax dollars. Where will those workers live?

A conservative mortgage broker ran the numbers for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage for me. A worker with a good credit history earning $25,000 per year, putting $5,000 down, can afford to buy a $100,000 home. By stretching, the price could go to $115,000 before the federal lending agencies (Fanny Mae and Sally Mae) would intervene. Adding up the principal, interest, taxes, insurance and private mortgage insurance payments, the monthly total would be roughly $880, or about 42 percent of the worker's total paycheck.

Unfortunately, the day of $100,000 homes in Sarasota is ancient history. Today's prices start at $250,000 for a dump, and swell to $300,000 or more for a nice small home in a working-class neighborhood.

Meanwhile the city is putting its slum- and blight-fighting money into creating more condos full of epicureans with cars, and more shops full of workers with no place in town to live.

Three or four years ago, the workers who support Sarasota's affluence fled to Bradenton and North Port to buy homes. But today, even those areas are pricey if you only make $12 an hour.

A variety of creative techniques to build affordable housing are under scrutiny today. An expensive consultant is drafting a change to the city's Comprehensive Plan to address the issue. The consultant, however, was told to ignore one potential solution: rentals.

Many of the people who support Sarasota's epicurean lifestyle may not want to buy a home. They are young and mobile, and some follow a seasonal trade, serving epicureans in Maine in the summer and back to Sarasota in the winter. Focusing exclusively on home ownership-an increasingly futile financial endeavor for the city's working class-ignores the two primary criteria of the problem: affordable and housing. Not affordable home ownership.

By taking rentals out of the agenda for discussion and focusing exclusively on ownership, the City Commission's marching orders to the consultant will produce dubious results, because the finances don't work. You need a steady income of at least $60,000 to be in today's housing market, and no fancy language can disguise that reality.

Will affordable housing! go the way of parking!-a flurry of verbiage followed by shifting attention to the next hot topic? One thing is sure: The TIF money so far has slavishly supported Sarasota's epicureans. It would take a titanic change of direction in City Hall to alter that well-worn course.

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