Stop diverting the state’s housing fund

Heading into the 2013 legislative session, things were looking good. No budget deficit and a recovering economy that has generated an estimated $200 million in Sadowski state and local housing trust funds, as well as an attorney-general settlement that has generated an additional $200 million in bank settlement funds to be appropriated for housing related activities.

Housing advocates are weary from four years of near total “sweeps” of the housing trust fund monies. Without a budget deficit, this is the year for all housing programs under the Sadowski fund to be fully funded.

The Florida Legislature has a constitutional obligation to pass a balanced budget. So when the Legislature swept housing trust funds to general revenue during years of budget deficit, housing advocates didn’t like it, but there was a rationale behind this action. But this year, there is no such deficit.

[Even so, the House Appropriations Committee last week voted to “sweep” the entire $200 million — i.e., divert the money to general revenue — and replace it with the $200 million from the settlement, even though the two pots of money are spent differently.]

Using tax dollars for the purpose for which they are raised is the fiscally conservative course of governing. Does anyone for a moment think that industry groups such as the Florida Realtors and Florida Home Builders Association would have agreed to an increase in the documentary-stamp tax for the general revenue fund? Of course not. The only reason these industry groups supported the tax was because it represented a statutory promise that those monies would be used to produce and preserve affordable housing in Florida.

When the monies deposited into the state and local housing trust fund accounts are swept into general revenue, it is the equivalent of having raised the documentary-stamp tax to fund general revenue. Again, something these industry groups would not have supported.

National and state fact-based research, including a study by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, provide data that answers the question about whether Floridians still need affordable housing in our foreclosure crisis environment. The answer is “yes, now more than ever.”

Florida’s most vulnerable populations, such as the working poor, low-income seniors and children (including the more than 83,500 children who experience homelessness each year in Florida) are in desperate need. Our existing housing programs at the local level and those at the state level, are ready and willing to respond to these needs. These programs only need the legislative appropriation of the money that is intended to be used for affordable housing to be able to respond.

If legislators do the right thing, not only will they be acting with integrity, they will be creating over 15,700 jobs and infusing our economy with more than $1.5 billion in positive economic benefit in just one year. It’s a win all the way around.

Jaimie Ross is affordable housing director at 1000 Friends of Florida and president of the Florida Housing Coalition.

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