Fla. adds $100M to frontline worker housing program that doesn’t exist

The Hometown Hero Housing program aimed to help with down payments and closing costs, but it died in committee


Jeffrey Schweers
Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In the midst of a statewide housing crisis, the Florida Legislature swept $100 million out of a nationally respected affordable housing rental assistance program for low-income families into a home-buying program that exists in name only.

Affordable housing advocates say the Legislature broke a promise made only a year ago that it would never again raid the Sadowski Affordable Housing Act fund, created in 1992 as a dedicated source of revenue to finance affordable housing programs.

In the last week of the Florida session, $100 million was moved from the Sadowski Affordable Housing Act into the Hometown Hero Housing Program. But the bill that could have led to that program's establishment died in committee.
In the last week of the Florida session, $100 million was moved from the Sadowski Affordable Housing Act into the Hometown Hero Housing Program. But the bill that could have led to that program's establishment died in committee. (Getty Images)

But over the past 20 years, the Legislature has removed $2.3 billion from the fund for other legislative priorities.

It’s just another example of diverting housing funds to other projects, one Orlando lawmaker and housing advocates said.

“The reality is when people ask us if we solved the housing crisis, we have to say it’s hard to tell because the money was diverted from our existing program to something new,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D- Orlando.

The transfer from the state housing trust fund, made during budget negotiations during the last week of the session, leaves the rental assistance program with $53.25 million for the coming budget year that begins July 1.

“We have so many people here, including airport workers, hospitality workers and others, who are desperate for affordable housing,” Eskamani said. “My office gets phone calls every day from people looking for a place to rent.”

The language was slipped into the back of the budget bill during the last week of the session, transferring $100 million from Sadowski into the Hometown Hero Housing Program, for down payment assistance and closing costs, to be established and run by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

The bill creating the program was sponsored by Sen. Ed Hooper, R- Palm Harbor, who also co-chaired the Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development appropriations conference committee that made the change.

Hooper did not return a call or email seeking comment.

The budget doesn’t provide any guidance on how to set up the program, criteria for who can qualify for assistance or even how much money each individual or family can receive. That’s because the bill (SB 788) that would have created the program died in committee, said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, a training and advocacy group on affordable housing issues.

Where the Senate came up with $100 million is a mystery, Ross said, because the original bill had no funding at all, basically leaving it up to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to figure out where the funds would come from.

That this broken promise is occurring in the midst of an affordable housing crisis where people have seen rent going up 14% in the Orlando market alone makes the betrayal feel that much worse, Ross said.

The loss of that funding is especially sad, Ross said, because for every dollar spent on that program, the government can leverage another six dollars. The money is used to provide gap financing for housing projects that developers otherwise couldn’t afford to build.

“It would have a substantial impact on affordable housing in Florida,” she said.

The Florida Housing Finance Corporation held a conference call Thursday afternoon to deal with those questions, spokeswoman Caroline Benson said. But because the budget still has not been signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, she said, the agency was still in discussions with the Legislature and governor’s office of policy and budget to determine eligibility criteria for the Hometown Hero program.

“However, I can tell you we are looking closely at the language of SB 788,” Benson said.

As outlined in Hooper’s bill, the Florida Hometown Hero Housing program would have paid up to 5% or $25,000, whichever is less, of the down payment and closing costs for frontline emergency workers, teachers, law enforcement officers and a wide range of health care professionals. Only adults employed full-time whose incomes don’t exceed 150% of the state or local median income could apply for the zero-interest loan.

The program would not be available to other essential workers like grocery store clerks, airport workers, daycare workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers or hotel employees, housing advocates noted.

“We expect this program to function similarly to others that Florida Housing has run in the past such as the Hurricane Michael Homeownership Funding program and Hardest Hit Fund, as well as the other down payment assistance programs that we currently offer,” Benson said.

The absence of any official program hasn’t stopped the Florida Association-Realtors from promoting the Hometown Hero program. They have a website dedicated to it, with a professionally produced video, a two-page glossy handout, a 12-page white paper providing data supporting the need for the program, and an 11-page social media toolkit.

The Florida Association-Realtors said EMTs and paramedics would need to earn an extra $25,000 a year than currently to afford a median-priced home in Florida, about $348,000 in 2021. Nurses would need to make an additional $15,000 a year and firefighters would need to earn an extra $10,000 more a year, the board said.

David Hall, a Port St Lucie member of the Board of Realtors, who serves on its legislative think tank, also sits on the board of directors of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. as an affordable housing advocate.

Focusing on homebuyers leaves out an entire group of Florida residents, advocates said.

“This crisis is not going to be solved by single-family homes,” said Ida Eskamani, Rep. Eskamani’s twin sister and a legislative affairs specialist for Florida Rising, a nonprofit organization focused on economic and racial justice.

“It’s not a step forward,” she said, noting that the state has millions to invest in all sorts of programs and corporate tax cuts. “If you want to create a new program, use other money, and don’t take away from the existing program.”

The Hometown Hero program is part of the deal lawmakers cut with the Realtors after they torpedoed their own planned constitutional amendment to redirect taxes collected on real estate deals to affordable housing, Ross said.

The Florida Association-Realtors had spent $2.75 million of $13 million raised on a constitutional amendment legislative leaders opposed to reverting a portion of document stamp taxes back to affordable housing funds.

Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo had warned that the amendment amounted to picking a war with the Legislature, and the Realtors backed down, agreeing to work on a legislative solution to the housing crisis.

Last year was supposed to be the last time that the state housing trust fund would be raided.

“We expected it would be a new day and all our money would be appropriated,” Ross said.

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