In what advocates called a historic move amid a surging housing crisis, the Sarasota County Commission voted this week to contribute $25 million in federal pandemic relief funds to help develop almost 700 new units of affordable housing.
Largely following the recommendations of a group of community housing advocates and experts, the commission agreed at a meeting Tuesday afternoon to contribute the money from the $84.2 million it received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.
The group of experts – led by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Women’s Resource Center – had recommended eight projects through which the federal funds would be leveraged with about $137 million from outside investment. The projects were chosen based on their ability to make a long-term impact on the county’s low-income housing stock and to meet tight federal deadlines to use the funds ahead of 2026.
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The projects also addressed various types of housing needs through a broad swath of the county, for everyone from working families to individuals and people on the brink of homelessness.
Veering slightly from the group’s recommendations of how to spend the $25 million, however, the board added an idea of its own to the list of suggested projects – for Loveland Center, a nonprofit working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Loveland’s project includes building 80 affordable units at The Villas at Loveland Village.
The addition forced other suggested projects off the table in order to stay at the $25 million mark.
Several of the commissioners bemoaned the difficulty in choosing between the projects.
“This is a very painful exercise, to be honest,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said about cutting back some of the projects.
“This is not a fun afternoon,” said Commissioner Nancy Detert, likening the decision-making process to the movie “Sophie’s Choice.”
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After much feedback from advocates and debate among commissioners, the board kept three projects of the Sarasota Housing Authority: Lofts on Lemon Phase II, Cypress Square and Central Gardens, all in Sarasota; the Atlantic Housing Foundation’s The Waters at North Port; Harvest House’s Home Again II in Sarasota; and one project of Family Promise of South Sarasota County.
But it cut a second recommended Family Promise project of seven units. It also scaled back the financial contribution toward 106 units in a project of Community Assisted Supportive Living, or CASL – from $7.5 million to $4.2 million – with commissioners stating that CASL had access to tax-credit financing.
The board also declined to include a separate proposal from Habitat for Humanity Sarasota related to 32 single-family homes, noting a desire to focus on community partners who would oversee units that remain affordable long term.
With the revised list, the overall number of affordable housing units to be built rose from the group’s recommended projects of 623 to a new total of 696.
Several of the commissioners were intent on keeping the second phase of Lofts on Lemon on the list. The first phase is set to open this year, with workforce units set aside for police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses. It is overseen by the Sarasota Housing Authority.
Commission chairman Alan Maio praised the authority’s newly opened Amaryllis Park Place, suggesting that a video of it shown at the meeting be run on local television so that residents can see the high quality of these projects to overcome community resistance.
“This is what we are here to do,” Maio said about affordable housing.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who said he had wanted the monies used for infrastructure and not affordable housing, was less sanguine, stating that “my kids will never live in” the units. Nevertheless, he said he was focused on the projects that would give taxpayers the most for their money.
“A lot of people can’t afford to live here,” Detert said. “This alleviates that problem.”
Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast’s senior vice president for community leadership, said despite the board’s departure from some of the group’s recommendations on projects, the move this week was historic, leveraging more money for affordable housing than in the history of Sarasota County.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Thaxton said after the meeting.
Phillip “P.J.” Brooks, chief operating officer of CASL, said while the cuts to the recommended contributions to its New Trail Plaza project would hamper its ability to leverage tax-credit financing, the organization was grateful to receive some funding from ARPA and was committed to making the project work.
Overall, Brooks added, he was encouraged by the beginning of an ongoing dialogue on affordable housing.
“I hope they recognize this is a start, not an end,” Brooks said.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at [email protected]