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City of Sarasota incentivizes construction of downtown workforce housing

Written by on Thursday, September 7, 2023

Some call it a developer giveaway, others hail it as a key response to the housing crisis

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Sept. 6, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: Critics have called it a billion-dollar giveaway to developers; proponents hail it as a key solution to the affordable housing crisis. We’re talking about simplifying the permitting process for developers and allowing them to build more apartments and condos, if they guarantee a minimum of units to be attainable. A change to the citywide comprehensive plan is advancing as city commissioners agreed 5-0 on Tuesday to incentivize construction of workforce housing in downtown. However, unanimity did not come without controversy. Our news team followed the discussion at City Hall.

Johannes Werner: José Fernandez anticipated what was going to happen, but he wanted to be on the record with his disapproval. The neighborhood activist feels he and his peers were not heard during public input meetings held on the proposed change to the City of Sarasota’s comprehensive plan. He also told the commissioners how difficult it will be for the city to hold developers and building owners accountable.

José Fernandez: I’ve commented on attainable housing to this body on several prior occasions, with no effect. Today, I hope that I can get you to reconsider, or at least to modify your approval of this statute. Once again, you’ve heard and had been receptive to input from developers and their representatives while dismissing input from citizens. At the first reading you heard from one citizen and the CCNA, supporting public input and a sunset provision. Yet you won’t consider these, all the while the input from six developers or their representatives in support of the ordinance was closely listened to. This is not going unnoticed. There are multiple issues that haven’t been addressed in the pursuit of simplicity, and have been left to the landlords to interpret and administer. For example, what about a couple sharing a one-bedroom apartment with only one name on the lease? Or multiple roommates in a two-bedroom, with only one or two names on the lease? Will people have to show tax returns or pay stubs? Will this be a yearly requirement? What if someone gets a raise that moves them into another bracket? Does this increase their rent? Must they move? What happens to the required one-third/one-third ratio in the building? Will the city be auditing this? I hesitated to bring a lot of this up because the last thing we need is to create a bureaucracy to monitor and manage this. But all these complications had been swept aside in the interest of simplicity. It won’t be simple when it happens. Finally, we need to remember that this is Phase Two. Phase Three will follow and presumably encompass the rest of the city, including Newtown. Although I think that you are going to approve this statute, I ask that you incorporate the input you’ve received from citizens for mandatory public input. And just as importantly, a sunset provision. The public desire for input is understandable, when you are going to quadruple the allowable density in what is already the most densely populated part of our city. A sunset provision ensures that this action is not allowed to run out of control. Thank you.

JW: The second reading of a proposed attainable-housing ordinance to amend the comprehensive plan for downtown was all about the wording of details – of which we know the devil is in. Commissioners discussed the risk of rich-poor segregation within the same building. Commissioner Eric Arroyo tagged it the “poor door”. They discussed the lack of parking downtown and how to ensure it is available to workforce housing tenants. They questioned how the city will be able to hold building owners’ feet to the fire. And one – Debbie Trice – suggested that the minimum of 12% attainable housing for a project allowed to exceed density by up to four times will not produce much workforce housing. But most prominently, both commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Trice criticized the fact that developers won’t have to share their plans with neighbors and other community members.

Quizzing City Manager Marlon Brown, Ahearn-Koch put it this way:

Jennifer Ahearn-Koch: So if a developer, let’s say in downtown, decides to take advantage of this, and they currently have 50 units an acre, now they get 220 units an acre. Correct? And 22 of those units would be considered affordable housing. Is that right? 23. Okay, so you have 220 units of which 23 are considered affordable housing in the downtown of the city of Sarasota. Does that project come before this commission? It would not. So there would be no opportunity for citizens to give input to us in any way, shape, or form. Is that correct? Brown: It would be identical to what we already have in downtown. A-K: Correct. Right. I just want it to be crystal clear, so that the commission understands. We will be shut off from listening because it will go through the administrative approval process. There’ll be no opportunity for the community to give any input, except for sending an email to staff. But people want to be involved in that conversation, they want to understand how it works. They want to understand and have this conversation that we’re having now. They want to be a part of their community. And they want to understand the way it works in a city when you increase density. And today, if he were to increase density, even in the downtown, there would be that opportunity for them to their concerns to be addressed. If we pass this without a mandatory community workshop, the only way they can address it is to come to this table during our meeting, and then we don’t address it, because it’s not in our hands. It’s in staff’s hands. So they come and they speak here to us, but we can’t do anything.

JW: The city manager conceded that the language could be changed later on to include workshops. But Commissioner Liz Alpert and Mayor Kyle Battie rejected the suggestion of community workshops.

Liz Alpert: If [developers] are not asking for any changes, the public knows that what’s in the zoning code can happen. But they’ve already had input into this zoning code. Having a workshop isn’t going to prevent 200 units or 400 units, whatever it is. And I think people are pushing for a public workshop, because they have somebody move, you know, like 400 people next to them, because their density is going to be increased. But that’s not going to stop the density from being increased. So I I’m trying to figure out the point.

Kyle Battie: That’s what happens. You know, this is a part of life. Things evolve. Cities happen, people move in, populations grow, and you do everything that you can to accommodate it. And this just a part of growth. If we don’t take care of density within the urban core of our city, we will have urban sprawl, and that’s something that we don’t want.

JW: Kelly Franklin is part of an overdevelopment-critical group called CityPAC Sarasota. In a Facebook post after the meeting, she pointed out that the approval process for projects in downtown is near-completely in the hands of city planners. She suggests that the professional planners are not always the best instance to have final say over approval. That’s because they tend to focus so much on the technical details that they often fail to see how a building violates the spirit of the city’s plan to create a walkable, inviting downtown. Franklin wrote that Battie and Alpert seem to be “unaware” of the fact a building has to comply not just with the technical aspects of the building code, but that it fits into the overall city context, and that “the language of the zoning code itself is subject to different interpretation by different people over time”.

Even so, the affordable housing argument prevailed and the city commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the downtown part of the comprehensive plan amendment.

On September 21, the city’s Planning Board will discuss and vote whether to recommend approval of the same for land along major thoroughfares in the rest of the city.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.

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