Another major Fla. newspaper backed the goal of Florida Realtors’ amendment petition drive to keep “Housing Funds for Housing.” Editors said it’s “nonsensical” to remove “hundreds of millions in designated housing money during an unprecedented affordable housing crisis.”
PALM BEACH, Fla. – When the Florida Legislature gathers in Tallahassee, a sweep of the Sadowski Housing Trust Funds to pay for projects that have nothing to do with housing usually follows.
State documentary stamp taxes on real estate sales provide the Sadowski funds with $423 million annually for state agencies and local governments to develop initiatives to help people own homes and afford rents. The funds are critical for Palm Beach County and much of Florida, as the housing market becomes less affordable. Yet, state leaders too often see the funds as nothing more than a piggy bank for other budgetary priorities.
After years of pillaging the only funds for affordable housing initiatives, this year lawmakers came up with an odd fix: They would keep their hands off the funds, in exchange for permanently cutting the amount it provides for housing.
The remedy is as nonsensical as “raiding” hundreds of millions in designated housing money during an unprecedented affordable housing crisis.
Unfortunately, the Legislature has a history of dipping into trust funds to pay for things for which they’re not designated, like corporate tax cuts and pet projects. In one particularly galling move that came to light after the condominium collapse in Surfside, legislators had diverted $15 million over the last three years from the Insurance Regulatory Trust Fund. That fund pays for programs that enforce laws and regulations and help condo boards understand their responsibilities in maintaining their buildings.
Florida has roughly 80 trust funds, according to a 2017 report by the Office of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer. Whether it’s anti-fraud prevention, highway safety or international trade promotion, they all rely on specific fees, fines or taxes to address specified problems.
Over the past three years, lawmakers have skimmed $1 billion from various trust funds and moved the money to other uses. The “Unobligated Cash” section of every state budget reveals the impacted trust funds and the amounts of diverted money. More than half of those so-called “sweeps” – about $559 million – was meant for the current budget year which began July 1.
Besides the Insurance Regulatory Trust Fund, lawmakers swept $105 million since 2019 from the Agency for Health Care Administration’s Grants and Donations Trust Fund, which pays health insurance costs for low-income uninsured children.
Last year, the governor left the Sadowski fund whole, for a change. The same can’t be said for the Department of Environmental Protection’s Inland Protection Fund, which generates money to protect sensitive lands from oil and chemical spills, It took an $85 million hit.
The “Unobligated Cash” section only shows the decisions lawmakers took in reaching the final budget. It doesn’t take into account any trust fund sweeps Gov. Ron DeSantis also might make. Last month, for example, vetoes by DeSantis swept away $40 million in housing funds.
The Sadowski trust funds have been Florida’s biggest target when it comes to raiding a dedicated source of revenue for the general budget. Since 2002, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush took $12 million from it, an estimated $2.3 billion in housing money has been diverted to other programs and expenses.
Now, half of the fund instead will go towards sea-level rise and wastewater projects, leaving a paltry $209 million a year for housing programs and angering those who want to see greater efforts taken to curb the impact of higher housing prices.
The Florida Realtors are up in arms. They’re petitioning to change the state constitution to overturn the new law and prevent future housing fund sweeps. Yet, many affordable housing advocates, including The Sadowski Coalition, remain cool to that idea. They insist that while the new appropriations are smaller, the money still exceeds what had been left over after lawmakers raided the housing trust fund in the past.
But there’s no dispute housing becomes less affordable by the day.
It now costs $1,650 a month to lease a one-bedroom apartment in Palm Beach County and the median cost of a house is $475,000. And the county’s once-$20.5 million share of Sadowski funding for affordable housing has been cut to a paltry $9.7 million.
Old habits die hard. The drama may be over when it comes to lawmakers filching dedicated housing funds, but the ability to address an increasingly unaffordable housing market is still in question. So too is the practice by state leaders of eyeing trust funds as easy fixes to enduring problems.
This article originally appeared on the Palm Beach Post: Editorial: Housing funds aren’t a piggy bank for Florida lawmakers
© 2021 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.