On Monday, more than 50 speakers and the Sarasota City Commission agreed: The city is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Taking steps toward finding a solution, commissioners voted 4-1 to move forward with plans to encourage developers to build affordable housing units, while shelving a plan to remove limits on how high buildings can go.
Items commissioners agreed to keep included the creation of a future land use designation along major traffic corridors, increased density bonuses for developers who build affordable housing units, staff approval for projects that contain affordable housing rather than making the developer go through a more lengthy public hearing process and a new zoning district in downtown's Park East neighborhood that allows for duplexes and triplexes.
The recommendations came from the city’s planning department. If ultimately adopted, they will affect roughly 1,500 parcels. During the meeting, city planning director Steven Cover said that implementation of the proposed changes could eventually add between 2,000 and 3,000 more affordable housing units to the city.
Of the 52 public speakers, several expressed wariness of developers who might use affordable housing units as a Trojan horse to earn extra profit, while some local employers pushed for the density and height increases as a way to help address staff shortages caused by the ongoing affordable housing crisis.
There were also young professionals who are forced to live with their parents in spite of gainful employment, and developers who felt that, in order to reach their financial goals, current density and height limitations encouraged the building of expansive, luxury units built for the rich. Those who opposed changes to the comprehensive plan feared they would have a negative impact on traffic, infrastructure, quality of life and the overall character of Sarasota.
As it stands, the maximum residential density allowed in the downtown core zoning districts is 50 units per acre—just one quarter of the 200 units per acre developers are permitted in downtown Bradenton, if they earn density bonuses. As for height, the City of Sarasota currently allows for 10-story buildings in the downtown core.
The proposed bonus for developers who build affordable housing units would have allowed them to add between one and five more stories, depending on zoning. Those height limitation changes represented a major sticking point at Monday's meeting.
"My fear is height could be a poison pill to this whole thing," said City Commissioner Hagen Brody. He proposed removing the question of height limitations from the plan altogether until the community could have more of an opportunity to weigh in.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed. “The community needs more input," she said. "There's been zero discussion with them about raising the downtown core parcels by five floors." A community workshop on the topic of building heights will be held at a future date.
State approval of the changes that did pass should take place this summer and must then go in front of the city commissioners for adoption in the late summer or early fall.