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Sarasota County green-lights big workforce housing project

Written by on Sunday, February 25, 2024

Public input has been minimal; Newtown residents object.

By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: Feb. 23, 2024

Host: Nearly 1,500 apartments – a quarter of them “attainable” – a grocery store and a pharmacy, all on 113 acres of county-owned land: The biggest commercial workforce housing project yet in Sarasota got a green light from county commissioners. But public input so far has been minimal, and residents of the historic Newtown neighborhood next door aren’t happy, as Florence Fahringer reports.

Draft plan for Midtown SRQ.

Florence Fahringer: The Sarasota County Commission on Wednesday discussed a high-density workforce housing development project, planned to go up just east of  Sarasota’s historic black community of Newtown. At stake is the biggest commercial affordable housing project yet in Sarasota County, which is one of the most unaffordable areas in Florida for working people. The developer plans to buy 113 acres of county-owned green space for $4 million, to build close to 1,500 apartments – a quarter of them defined as “attainable” – plus a grocery store and pharmacy.

But before getting there, the county commission had to approve a rezone request that would actually allow the developer to build all this. Opening the discussion were residents of  Newtown, who made their feelings about the project known during public comments. 

Public commenter 1: I have seen a lot of changes. I have seen developers come in and just purchase land, buy it up all for their benefit, and nothing is done for the community. The school’s already loaded. Now they’re wanting to put in an additional 1,479 units. What is that going to do to our traffic now? I’m concerned that there’s nothing going on by the way of county recreation for the kids in the community. That’s been a pet peeve of mine for the past 20 years. I have a lot of volunteer hours. The kids are lacking the respect for themselves and others. And we wonder what’s happening to the kids. They’re on the streets.
There’s nothing for them to do.

Public commenter 2: Everywhere I look, I’m reminded how my home is being torn down and turned into a concrete jungle.
It’s a sad truth. And the county refuses to acknowledge that fact, because of the land developers that come in with the dollar. This is my home. I want my daughter to know Sarasota. I don’t want her to be displaced. I want her to have the privilege to have a place like this where you can leave your door open.

Public commenter 3: Our zip code has the lowest income in the entire county. So it concerns me about the affordable housing. Our precinct has 1,082 whites, 926 Blacks, 345 Hispanics, and 196 other ethnic races. That’s right there. And Newtown is my area, so my concern is that when the new development comes in, if it’s not affordable housing for the people that live in the community that can’t afford to move in. It’s going to totally dilute our voice and the voting bloc. Right now, it says that our county median home is $406,000, while in our neighborhood the houses are about $250,000. So if the homes are going to be priced at $400,000, or $500,000 or more, the first Gracewater that’s down Tuttle [Avenue], those houses are starting out at $500,000. The people in our community cannot afford them. I hope you don’t approve this.

The 113 acres of green space are owned by Sarasota County.

FF: The three public commenters — in contrast to the county commissioners on the all-white dais — all had lived in Newtown and Sarasota for their entire lives. The only opportunity for the surrounding community to provide input into the project until that day was one so-called neighborhood workshop on Zoom last year.

The developers defended their project, emphasizing both that the land was empty, they’re not razing anything; and that three hundred seventy-one of the units — that’s one quarter of all units — are quote-unquote “affordable.” On that last point, Commissioner Mark Smith had some questions.

Mark Smith: Thank you, Bill. We’re talking about affordable housing. Do have an idea of the costs that we’re talking about? Are they the AMI, and how long how long will they stay affordable?

FF: Developers have been jumping on the opportunity to build denser housing across Sarasota, ever since this new state law opened the door to higher density. That regulation came with a catch — twenty-five percent of the housing must be quote-unquote “affordable.” It’s more bang for a developer’s buck: four times more units means three times more market-rate units. And, as Smith was getting at, “affordable” can be a deceptive term to use. The developers clarified, saying half of the affordable units would be valued at eighty percent of the area median income, and the other half would be valued at sixty percent the area median income. 

To put that into perspective: that means one hundred and eighty-five units would cost up to thirteen hundred dollars in rent, another one hundred and eighty-five units would cost up to eighteen hundred dollars in rent. Those three hundred and seventy-one units are the affordable ones. The remaining one thousand, one hundred and thirteen units would all be market-rate. 

Shortly after Smith’s clarification, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger moved to approve the motion, which would allow the development to move forward. He got a second from Commissioner Neil Rainford. Smith made one last comment, saying he had some reservations about the project, but would approve it regardless. He seemed to be the only commissioner to express any concern over the project, and even then, he still gave it a preemptive thumbs-up. With the majority of the board not even asking any questions, the motion passed unanimously. 

This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News. 

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