Friday, February 13, 2015

Reduced funding for housing programs undermines Amendment 1's conservation goals

Reposted from University of Miami Office of Civic and Community Engagement

Last November Amendment 1 passed with resounding support, with 75% approval by voters. The amendment created a dedicated source of funding for environmental conservation by setting aside 33% of doc stamp taxes on real estate transactions. As one conservation organization put it, this “great bipartisan victory reflects the understanding of Florida voters that protecting our natural resources protects our economy.”

But a new bill in the state legislature to implement Amendment 1 may end up undermining conservation goals. The bill would significantly reduce the amount of funding going to the Housing Trust Fund, which also receives funding from doc stamp collections. Under the 1992 Sadowski Act 16% of doc stamp collections are set aside for housing programs such as homeownership assistance and affordable rental housing construction and rehabilitation, sorely needed in a state with quickly rising housing costs and large affordability gaps. But SB 586 would take the percentage of doc stamp collections for Amendment 1 before the percentage for housing programs, effectively reducing the amount going to the Housing Trust Fund.

This year the reduction would be about $110 million, a huge chunk of the estimated $267 million that should be going to housing programs. This is a blow after years of decreased funding due the recession and to the legislature sweeping the funds away from housing to be used for general revenue. Moreover, the change would be permanent, a permanent reduction of funds available for housing.

The need for affordable housing in the state is much greater than what has ever been funded. In urban areas of the state residents spend far more on housing than the national average, such as Miami-Dade where households spend an average of 58% of their income on housing and transportation cost. Federal dollars for housing have been shrinking for decades, and so states and localities have had to find new sources of revenue. Florida’s Sadowski Act makes sense for a state where housing is comparatively inexpensive for out-of-state and international buyers, but where wages are comparatively low and low-wage industries are a major source of employment. 

In an ideal world environmentalists and housing advocates would not be pitted against each other, and the state government would recognize the importance of adequate funding for both. But that is far from the reality in Florida where the conventional wisdom is that top priority should be a “business-friendly climate” and that means keeping taxes low.  Research shows however that low taxes are not as important for businesses as quality of life and a skilled workforce (which are supported by quality housing and public services). 

It’s important for environmentalists and housing advocates to work together and press their cause together and not be maneuvered into conflict over pieces of a pie that’s too small. Housing and the environment are closely tied together in Florida, as the demand for low cost housing pushes sprawl further into undeveloped areas.  This has been used as an argument in Miami-Dade for expanding the Urban Development Boundary, and during the late 2000’s housing was constructed on formerly undeveloped land in south Dade as the central city areas became unaffordable. Pushing moderate and lower income households out to the urban fringe is a disastrous pattern for both the environment and for communities who would have even less access to jobs and face increased commute times and transportation costs. 

Conflict between environmental and urban needs is by no means new in Florida, but as our state’s population continues to grow, urban areas expand and climate change impacts increase, these conflicts are likely to become more acute. There is no time like the present to address the need to conserve natural areas and to address our housing challenges together. Reduced funding for affordable housing programs will only be counter-productive for our environment in the long run.  

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