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Sarasota Planning Board Debates more big Public Housing complexes in Newtown

Written by on Thursday, February 8, 2024

The one board member who lives in the area dissents.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Feb. 7, 2024

Host: Ambitious plans that could result in hundreds of much-needed new public housing apartments came before the City of Sarasota Planning Board last week. But it turned out that the one board member who is from the neighborhood where the new construction could happen opposes the plans. Ramon Lopez reports.

Ramon Lopez:  There’s agreement on the need for more affordable and attainable housing in Sarasota. But how to best get there is subject to debate. Case in point: a heated argument broke out at a City of Sarasota Planning Board special meeting on Feb. 1.

Before the Planning Board members were requests from the Sarasota Housing Authority to allow higher density for new developments in Sarasota’s Newtown community. Planning board approval was sought to amend the Future Land Use map to multiple family, high-density for sites totaling 14.6 acres, encompassing 1442 and 1456 on 22nd Street, and 1850 23rd Street, which is the current location of the aging Bertha Mitchell housing complex, surrounded on three sides by single-family homes.

Number 3 on the map depicts the property the Sarasota Housing Authority would like to use to build multifamily apartment complexes, replacing existing duplexes.

The Housing Authority also sought a positive recommendation to the City of Sarasota Commission to increase the maximum building height from 35 feet to 45 feet, and increase the maximum density from 25 dwelling units per acre to 50 dwellings per acre for the future redevelopment of Bertha Mitchell.

The Planning Board elected to separate the two issues, with the two small parcels on 22nd Street staying at 25 units per acre. They then tackled the Housing Authority request to add height and double density for the redeveloped Bertha Mitchell housing. That request was loudly criticized by Planning Board Member Terrill Salem, a single-family house builder who lives in Newtown. He said it would be detrimental to his community.

Terrill Salem:  If the goal is to destroy the neighborhood, then we will be supporting this motion. Increasing the density from medium at 25 units per acre to 50 units per acre is detrimental to the historic Newtown community, as it has recently been designated.

These properties are adjacent all but for one side to single family homes. There’s no step-down from high density, medium density to single family. We’re just going to be at high density, so there’s no buffer. What existing citizens of the historic Newtown will get is double the people, double the vehicular traffic, and double the number of multifamily units, from 25 to 50. If it is as we say, the units will be affordable. Do you believe that it’s okay to create a zoning enclave for the sake of attainable, affordable workforce housing in the middle of a lower economic, historic community that is already there now? Is it okay that we just place all of the low-income housing in the middle of the historic Newtown that is already plagued with economic challenges? Is it the responsibility of the historic Newtown community to disproportionately provide the supply of affordable housing for the City of Sarasota? An affirmative vote on this will be saying that it is. I disagree, and I cannot support rezoning the properties to a higher density.

The goal is to disseminate people of different economic backgrounds throughout, so that they can be inspired by people that are doing well. So I understand … the crisis of affordable housing hits us all. And, you know, nobody more than me champions affordable housing on the board. That’s my thing. I lived that life. I build affordable housing. I don’t build high-end construction. I build affordable. But it’s just not right to create a situation where you put poor white folk and poor black folk in just one area. It’s just not right.  …

I don’t think you understand my position. My position is not that. My position is doubling the number of people of low-income economic means in one concentrated area, it’s just creating a ghetto.

RL:  Planning Board Chairman Michael Halflants disagreed with Salem. He said doubling the amount of well-designed dwellings would benefit the area, while boosting affordable housing in the city. He also suggested that any new complex could be mixed-income, with apartments for tenants that live just below the area median income, or AMI.

Michael Halflants: And I believe, if well designed at 50 units per acre, it could be something that contributes to the neighborhood around it. And I do also believe that if it’s mixed to the sense that, you know, it’s 80% AMI, that could also be a benefit to the neighborhood.

RL: The Planning Board members tried unsuccessfully to come up with a compromise position on the height and density issues. In the end, they voted 4-1 to approve the Sarasota Housing Authority request, with Salem dissenting. But the debate over how best to increase affordable housing will continue, with the matter now going to the city commissioners for their consideration. Terrell Salem hopes the commissioners will feel differently about the citizens of Newtown.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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