We’ve seen this sleight of hand before. Two decades ago, state legislators used money from the Florida Lottery to supplant education funding — not, as they had promised, to supplement it.
Lawmakers seem ready to do the same thing with funds that, for decades, have been used successfully to provide quality affordable housing for Floridians and to encourage developers to build homes for low-income residents.
This session, lawmakers propose to snatch an estimated $204 million destined for the State Housing Initiative Program (SHIP) and the State Incentive Loan Program (SAIL) and put the money into general revenue. These programs are funded by the Sadowski Trust Fund, whose money, generated by a portion of closing costs from property sales, has been targeted before.
The Senate plan would make up the difference with money from a windfall of settlement funds wrangled by Attorney General Pam Bondi and her counterparts nationwide from mortgage banks involved in unfair lending practices. Florida has received about $334 million. Give Ms. Bondi credit for focusing the money on housing-related initiatives. But a big thumbs-down for how the lawmakers plan to proceed.
In recent years, the Republican-led Legislature has latched onto programs and policies that were not broken — that were working effectively on behalf of the average Floridian — and hijacked them to benefit the deep-pocketed few. Think of lawmakers’ unwarranted attack on local wage-theft laws.
Now come efforts to undercut two programs that have made a huge difference in the lives of working people who need help acquiring a home, seniors who can’t afford to stay in their homes and people on the cusp of becoming homeless. Developers building affordable housing also get a boost, helping create construction jobs.
While the Senate, at least, would replace some of the Sadowski money — only about $135 million — the House goes off on a different tangent completely. It proposes that the funds be administered by the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which would get $43 million, and gives $35 million to Habitat for Humanity of Florida. However, the House bill provides no money for the tried and true SHIP program, which operates in all 67 counties.
SHIP provides funds through partners around the state to meet community-specific needs. The money helps the elderly on fixed incomes make repairs to their homes so that they can continue to live there. It helps first-time buyers with down payments and closing costs. It can help someone pay for a security deposit. SHIP is flexible and can help fill those one-time financial gaps and keep a roof over someone’s head. Given Florida’s slowly recovering economy, why would House lawmakers eliminate these funds?
The House’s proposal also sets a troubling precedent by appropriating funds for a particular developer instead of for a program. Habitat for Humanity of Florida is a respected program with a track record of providing homes for low-income families. It, indeed, should receive Sadowski funds. However, all of Habitat’s consumers would receive assistance and funding from SHIP, but not all of the people who would otherwise be assisted by SHIP can get the assistance they need from Habitat.
For the first time in about four years, the state is set to realize a surplus instead of a deep deficit. So there really is no excuse for knocking the legs out from under these housing programs. They are not broken.