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How lawmaker raids to a trust fund for affordable housing helped create Florida’s crisis

Posted at 10:54 AM, Apr 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-15 14:21:46-04

Unlike affordable housing options right now, the stories of struggle in Florida are in no short supply.

Across the state, people are being priced out of homes and rentals. The crunch has forced 62-year-old Vernita McCaskill into a Tampa hotel for the past month and a half.

“I don’t see my way out right now. You don’t know what to do day-to-day,” she told us recently.

McCaskill is now behind on her hotel payments and fears the streets are next.

“I’m terrified. I’ve never been in this situation at all,” she said.

Florida’s affordable housing crisis has become so dire, cities are redirecting cash to assist residents. In Miami-Dade, the mayor recently declared a state of emergency over its “affordability crisis.”

But why housing in the Sunshine State went from budget-friendly to extravagantly out of touch goes beyond rising inflation, stagnant incomes and increasing demand.

Some of it can be directed at raids on a state trust fund. Called the Sadowski Fund, it became Florida law back in 1992 as a dedicated annual revenue source to keep affordable housing projects thriving across the state.

Funded through stamp tax fees from real estate deals, the Sadowski includes two trust funds. 70% of the money in the Sadowski fund goes to local housing assistance known as SHIP and the other 30% goes into a state housing trust fund known as SAIL. SHIP helps homeowners with downpayment, repairs or preservation and rental assistance while SAIL goes to developers to help build more affordable housing.

But during the housing boom of 2002, under Governor Jeb Bush, the legislature started raiding the trust fund for other projects. Many of those projects had nothing to do with housing at all.

But raids of the Sadowski fund kept going explained Jaimie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition.

“It became sort of a habit that the legislature was taking a whole bunch of Sadowski trust funds and sweeping it into general revenue,” she said.

Ross has spent years leading campaigns to stop the legislature’s “Sadowski sweeps.”

“So the fact that this fund had been raided for two decades helped put us in this crisis,” asked reporter Katie LaGrone.

“True, true” said Ross. “To be frank, it added up to more than $2 billion,” she explained.

Actually, Ross explained it’s much more than $2 billion since each dollar from the fund is leveraged 6 to 1.

After years of those sweeps, last year, lawmakers finally passed a bill to stop the raids. And last month, they agreed to devote all the Sadowski money for its intended purpose, affordable housing. The trust fund is now worth more than $362 million. But it all comes a little too late.

“We’re very far behind,” said Ross. “In no small part those many, many years of sweeps really hurt Florida’s production of affordable housing and preservation,” she said.

With demand for high-end housing still strong, Ross said, catching up now has new challenges since developers are more likely to build where they can get the most profit which is in high-end luxury housing.

“You can’t blame them for that,” she said.

As a result, Ross believes solving the state’s current housing crisis calls for more affordable housing developers and more incentives to attract them, which includes money, tax credits and creative new partnerships.

It’s all on the table as Floridians continue to struggle while the government’s scramble to help them comes years too late.

“The sweep of the Sadowski Trust Fund year after year has really hurt our ability to meet the housing needs in Florida,” said Ross.

Last month, the legislature also agreed to pour $100 million into a newly created program known as the “Hometown Heroes” housing program. While not implemented yet, it will help first responders, including teachers, with downpayment and closing costs.