Florida Politics

Florida lawmakers curtail local governments’ ability to set affordable housing rules

Florida lawmakers approved a bill Friday that could restrict local governments’ ability to create affordable housing units, as well as require that those who lose development disputes in court pay both parties’ legal fees.

The changes place additional restrictions on zoning decisions local governments make and could throw up road blocks for future local measures that tie affordable housing creation to new developments, although the approved legislation is not as broadly restrictive as a previous version.

HB 7103, which the state Senate passed by a 26-13 vote Friday morning, would allow inclusionary zoning that can require developers to set aside a certain percentage of units for residents with low incomes, but requires that any associated costs to the developer be fully offset by incentives like bonuses or waived fees.

A prior House proposal had sought to preempt local governments from being able to require affordable housing units outright, but the Senate rolled that language back to require only that developers be able to recoup costs.

The Senate’s version of the bill still imposes a 30-day time limit for a county or municipality to review development applications or permit applications and issue procedures for addressing deficiencies, and it shortens how long departments have to review a permit application from 30 days to 20.

The more stringent House version had also added a series of restrictions on a municipality’s ability to mandate price-controlled housing units be set aside for any particular group of people, which the Senate removed.

A few hours later, the House approved the changes by a 66-42 vote, largely on party lines.

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Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, had said when the bill was first passed by the House that local governments’ power to mandate developers build affordable housing was “abusive.” Though the Senate’s bill retains that ability to require those units be built, he said, “they have to make the developer whole.”

Rep. Margaret Good, D-Siesta Key, sought to amend the legislation so that any parties who challenge development orders in courts would no longer be required to pay the prevailing party’s attorney’s fees, but the proposed change failed on a voice vote. Fischer contended that the requirement to pay a winner’s legal costs was needed to protect against “frivolous lawsuits.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, was among the Democrats who largely voted against the bill, calling affordable housing “a multifaceted crisis in our state.”

She added she was critical of any legislation that might preempt local control of policies but particularly any related to housing needs. “It’s place-based. Our local governments know how to solve these problems.”

The bill, during weeks of committee meetings, had been fought by several groups representing local governments, from the League of Cities to the Florida Association of Counties.

They contended that counties and municipalities needed to retain the freedom to set mandates on affordable housing, and that shortening deadlines as the bill does would give communities less time to review the construction of large real estate projects nearby.

But lawmakers in support, buoyed by groups representing home builders and community developers, had argued that the bill would control building costs by requiring the incentives and expediting approvals, to subsequently lower rents and sale prices.

Friday’s decision could impact the crisis in Miami-Dade County, which has an expensive housing market with stagnant, low wages. The area is often cited as having the among the highest housing cost burdens in the country.

Miami has commissioned a soon-to-be-completed housing master plan from Florida International University, a road map for how the city can address the lack of housing for people with low incomes. But the bill approved Friday alters the menu of options by taking affordable housing mandates without development bonuses out of contention.

The legislation does appear to preserve a tool already in use just outside downtown Miami, where commissioners recently voted to require that developers set aside a percentage of units in new buildings for low-income tenants in exchange for the right to construct bigger, denser buildings.