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Housing, Environmental Advocates Blast Housing Fund Sweep

Lawmakers are considering sweeping funds away from affordable housing programs and using those dollars to support environmental initiatives outlined by Governor Ron DeSantis. That includes wastewater improvement projects and helping communities deal with the impacts of sea level rise and flooding
Lawmakers are considering sweeping funds away from affordable housing programs and using those dollars to support environmental initiatives outlined by Governor Ron DeSantis. That includes wastewater improvement projects and helping communities deal with the impacts of sea level rise and flooding

Lawmakers are considering a proposal to take money from an affordable housing trust fund to put toward environmental initiatives. But housing advocates and environmentalists say that takes away money from housing programs desperately needed in Florida.

The documentary stamp tax helps fund many different things, from land acquisition to state transportation. It also gives money to state and local government housing, which supports programs that develop and preserve affordable housing and assist people with down payments and financing. But lawmakers are seeking to reduce the money these programs get from the documentary stamp tax from about 24% to roughly 6%.

"That's very concerning for us. Florida is a state that has an affordable housing crisis," Tom Butler with the Florida Realtors Association says.

He says Florida is growing rapidly, and there are not enough affordable homes for everyone who needs one. And he says now, because of the pandemic, homes are essential.

"When the pandemic started, housing kind of became a refuge. It's been our office. It's been childcare for many. It's been so much things to so many people," Butler says.

Republican lawmakers want to reduce the trust fund to pay for wastewater grants and the new Resilient Florida Trust Fund—a grant program to help communities prepare for the impacts of flooding and sea level rise. Adrian Madriz leads the Struggle for Miami's Affordable and Sustainable Housing group, otherwise known as SMASH. He's proposing the state use federal dollars from COVID-19 aid to cover environmental initiatives rather than take that money away from affordable housing programs.

"The state has received so much assistance from the federal government due to COVID, and due to the pandemic, that there is more than enough financial flexibility now to cover all of the programs it usually does plus all of these additional programs. The idea that they would now need to cut funding for essential programs makes no sense," Madriz says.

Environmentalists also don't agree with the proposal. Aliki Moncrief is with Florida Conservation Voters.

"The wastewater infrastructure problems that we're having in Florida are a creation of the legislature. They have dragged their feet for over 10 years and failed to significantly fund ongoing wastewater improvements, and so now, fast-forward to today—we're in crisis mode, and they want to play catch up by taking away from the affordable housing trust funds, which for 20 years have been raided almost every year by the legislature," Moncrief says.

Moncrief says funding to affordable housing programs could stay intact, and the legislature's environmental initiatives could still get money if lawmakers use taxes from internet sales to put dollars into both of those pots. Instead, lawmakers are planning to steer that money into the unemployment trust fund. Moncrief also says lawmakers are wasting money through a project that would create three new toll roads.

"Instead of paying for roads that no one wants, they could be applying those funds to both affordable housing and wastewater infrastructure," Moncrief says.

A proposal in the legislature would partially repeal that road plan. Part of the push to fund wastewater projects comes from the governor's environmental priorities outlined in his budget proposal. Rep. Josie Tomkow (R-Auburndale) is sponsoring the measure. She says sea level rise and water quality have become critical issues to the state and says housing issues are not being ignored.

"Appropriations of state funds are only a fraction of monies available to operate affordable housing programs. While state spending has averaged $160 million annually over the last five years, available federal resources have averaged $642 million annually. There is also an additional $1.4 billion for the federal emergency rental assistance program available to assist local governments as well," Tomkow says.

The bill has passed its only committee stop and is heading to the floor this week for a vote.

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