SARASOTA CO., Fla. (WFLA) — Affordable housing remains a problem in Florida as home prices and rental costs continue to grow. Now, the Sarasota County Commission is weighing a proposal to use $25 million in federal funds to make a dent in a growing affordable housing crisis.

The proposal for the funding goes before the Sarasota County Commission, Tuesday.

The $25 million, if approved for use, would make 623 housing units available across eight locations to families with children, workers, the homeless and children aging out of the state’s foster care system. Instead, with the same amount of funding, the commission approved a plan for 696 units in Sarasota.

The $25 million comes from a portion of funding delivered to Sarasota County by the American Rescue Plan Act, President Joe Biden’s first big legislative effort of relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. ARPA built on legislation and relief provided by Congress under former President Donald Trump in 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act.) Both pieces of federal legislation used trillions of dollars to address systemic, pandemic-caused issues.

Funding from both sets of relief are still being put to use. The effort in Sarasota County to address affordable housing is just one program aimed at cutting down on the financial impacts of the pandemic, as well as pivoting the funds to a cause that has increasingly become an issue in Florida.

The program, as proposed in a plan created by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation on behalf of the Sarasota County Commission, would use $25 million in federal funding alongside millions of dollars of outside investment from community partners and developers, to build the more than 600 affordable housing units across the county.

Updated Breakdown of Affordable Housing Units (Source: Sarasota County Commission meeting)

GCCF said all of the projects are durable capital investments to create long-term affordable housing in the county, and “consistent” with requirements set by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Those categories include “‘enumerated’ eligible capital investment uses, eligible beneficiaries, eligible populations, obligation and expenditure deadline requirements, and qualified subrecipient agreement agencies,” according to GCCF. Each project will create low-income housing that is intended to help residents making at most 80% of the area median income. The U.S. Treasury defines its targeted populations as “impacted” or “disproportionately impacted” residents, meaning their incomes are at times less than 65% of the AMI.

The AMI in Sarasota County is $77,200. That means residents who can benefit from the proposed projects, once completed, must make at most $61,750, according to the county’s 2021 AMI records.

Among the properties proposed for purchase, expansion or renovation are a combination of family homes and apartment units. The locations of the various potential homes for use in the program are spread out across the county, meaning the properties will be able to assist in multiple geographic areas, rather than clustered in parts of Sarasota County that are already developed, or receiving separate funding opportunities to address affordable housing.

According to representatives from Gulf Coast Community Foundation, one difficulty of building low-income housing is competition in the market. To that end, the projects detailed by the foundation were chosen to “supplement rather than compete with market-rate housing or free market conditions.”

Included in the documentation provided by GCCF to 8 On Your Side were additional future housing initiative ideas, including a goal of another 310 units or homes that could also be developed or purchased for use in a similar program at later dates. Cost estimates included with those additional “ideas for future” were a minimum of $24.8 million in additional ARPA funds, as well as an as yet undetermined total from partner investment.

Extra documents provided detailed planning needs to address homelessness among Sarasota’s veteran population, as well as “housing interventions” for a more rapid effort to provide short-term or medium-term rental assistance. Still, there was debate over the ability of the various developers and community partners to meet the building deadlines of the initiative. The deadlines were of particular interest to commission members.

“I think I said this in the prior meeting but our legal team better be ‘incredibly focused’ on these contracts because, as William mentioned, these are crazy tight deadlines…This is allocated by 2024, finished by 2026. If one of these doesn’t perform, what exactly is going to happen without us exposing the taxpayers,” District 1 Commissioner Michael Moran said.

While worried over the timelines, which were set in combination by ARPA guidelines and commission rules, members of the board were optimistic of what the development meant for the county.

District 3 commissioner Nancy Detert, remained hopeful that it would “provide more affordable housing” than the county had ever voted on before.

However, the funding came with a warning from the commission chair.

“Don’t take a penny, don’t tee up for a penny of this money unless you can deliver in the timelines, please,” Commission Chair Alan Maio said. “Whatever it takes, the office of the count attorney, because quite frankly we bury them in stuff…I don’t want to get the calls, I’m afraid, frightened to death, I won’t be able to sleep at night, if the calls come that we didn’t perform for these people.” Maio pledged additional support to the attorney’s office.

Still, Detert expressed hope that the project would help the county.

“We’ve cut CASL in half, and Lofts of Lemon would stay the way it is, but I think this provides us with a lot of units. And this certainly meets one of our basic tenets, which is to make Sarasota a great place to live,” District 3 commissioner Nancy Detert said. “So far, nobody, a lot of people can’t afford to live here, this helps alleviate that problem.”

The move to allocate the $25 million in funding passed.

“I have no doubt that they can get it done in time,” Vice Chairman Ron Cutsinger said about Lofts on Lemon, which he said he’d toured the previous weekend. “This is a proven concept, and a proven ability to get it done and do it in a great way, and I have no doubt that they can get it done on time because they have the experience, and you’ve seen these things through and I do support that.”

Despite the comments on feasibility from Cutsinger, the motion passed.

“It’s just very difficult to cut any of this, to be honest, it’s challenging. I hope nobody takes it personally, but we’re trying to do is come up with an option that provides long-term affordable housing,” Cutsinger continued. “The model we were using is the model for leveraging rental-type homes that will continue to be low-cost, affordable housing. I know it’s challenging, but I will support that.”

No commission members voted in opposition to the funding being allocated for the affordable housing proposal.