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Sarasota pushes for the use of COVID-19 federal funds for affordable housing

screenshot of commissioners sitting at a meeting
Sarasota County Commission
Sarasota County
The issue of housing affordability was discusses at a Sarasota County Commission meeting Dec. 7, 2021.

The issue of housing affordability was emphasized in a Sarasota County Commission meeting earlier this month.

Affordable housing advocates, as well as local residents, are pushing the Sarasota County Commission to use federal COVID-19 funds to help address the issue.

When the commission met last week, they heard a flood of public responses asking the county to spend some of its share of money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help those in need.

The county received $84.2 million in funds that commissioners can use as they see fit.

Chris Johnson is the CEO of Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. He was one of the many speakers who encouraged commissioners to allocate 25% of that aid to affordable housing.

He said that a lack of affordable housing — defined as costing 30 to 60% of the median household income for a region — has been an issue for years, but has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

“According to the Shimberg Center (for Housing), we're about 14,000 units short of what we need for affordable housing,” said Johnson. “The last year and a half to two years has just exacerbated that.”

He added that, during that time, his organization’s shelters have reached full capacity.

“The problem is that with a huge influx like this, we have nowhere for people to go, we're losing the stock that we had, and we don't have any new stock that's been built.”

In addition, Johnson is concerned that a lack of housing could lead to a severe shortage of people who provide basic community services.

“We're talking folks that work at the restaurants that people go to, folks that work at the grocery stores, the teachers, the police officers, just everyday people (whose) housing is no longer affordable,” said Johnson. “So we'll create a ripple effect in our community if we don't do something about it.”

And an affordable place to live also has its health benefits.

“All the basic social determinants of health are improved by stable housing. And so without it, you have increases in mental health (problems), substance abuse, physical ailments,” said Johnson. “Everything gets exacerbated when you don't have affordable housing and when you don't have stable housing, there's a mental stress that comes with that.”

Erin Minor, the CEO of Harvest House, one of the largest non-profit affordable housing agencies in Sarasota County, reminded commissioners last week about this “ripple effect.”

“Let's put this into more context: $18 an hour is a gross income of a mere $37,000 a year. Families who have to pay at least 60% of their income for rent alone...are doing their very best, but they will not get any relief,” said Minor.

“Every day is chock full of toxic stress, impacting their mental wellness, physical health, sleep patterns, and increasing anxiety and fear. All of course affects the children in the home, which of course, affects their schooling.”

And Jon Thaxton, Senior Vice President for Community Investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, noted that affordable housing and homelessness were among the biggest issues in the 2021 Sarasota County Citizens Opinion survey.

“They're very similar, if not the same issues in many respects, because as the only cure for hunger is food, the only cure for homelessness is a home and we do not have the housing inventory to do those,” Thaxton told commissioners. “So yes, income does play a big part of it. But again, that is something that's very difficult for us to control.”

Commissioners discussed how the federal money would be allocated and had county staff propose a list of potential places where the money could go.

The staff proposed allocating $5 million to affordable housing and $5 million to mental health services.

The commissioners have not decided on exact numbers yet, but are scheduled to continue the discussion next month. Their next meeting is scheduled for January 11, 2022.

Johnson said that the funds will not resolve the issues as “there's no way to instantly find housing for all of these individuals.”

“But what we can do is, if they decide to use that funding for future housing, we can recover and then avoid a future catastrophe if we actually make those plans now for the future,” he said. “So they have an opportunity to leave a legacy for future generations.”

Christina Loizou is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second semester with WUSF.
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