Hillsborough leaders promise $10 million affordable housing boost

Bay area volunteers donate their time on Jan. 21 for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day of Service to help build three of the five Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County homes in north Brandon. The county plans to spend an addtional $10 million annually on affordable housing to address the growing crisis. [JOYCE McKENZIE | Special to the Times]

TAMPA — Martha Louise Haeusler never thought about the cost of housing until she fell and dislocated her shoulder.

That was in January. Suddenly the 75-year-old was unable to play the church organ. That was her job as music director at Grace Episcopal Church in Tampa Palms.

She would have to take a leave of absence. She also had to find a place to live for a lot less. She prepared to downsize, like give up her sewing room — or maybe even find new homes for her dog Mitzi and cat Oliver John.

Finally, she found a place she could afford. She got to keep her pets, too.

But what happens when the 75-year-old can’t work to support herself anymore?

“It was a (long) search for me, but I was willing to make sacrifices,” Haeusler said. “I’m going to be okay, as long as I can work. But after that, then who knows?”

Thanks to pressure from Haeusler and hundreds of other community activists, the Hillsborough County Commission voted April 17 to take the first step in creating a new $10 million annual fund to boost what the county already spends on creating, preserving and rehabbing affordable housing.

If that money had been available last year, it would have raised spending on affordable housing to nearly $25 million — a jump of 68 percent in funding to tackle a crisis that is being felt across the region, and the nation.

The commission’s decision was met with a standing ovation from Haeusler and more than 75 members of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality.

The faith-based, grass-roots group, known as HOPE, has spent the past six years urging the county to increase spending on long-term housing to make up for the devastating cuts to Hillsborough’s share of state housing funds.

County officials said that share has been slashed from $6.3 million in 2016 down to $1.3 million in 2018.

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Making a long-term commitment to fund affordable housing is a significant shift in what commissioners had been spending to deal with the shrinking availability of such housing.

The county spent $62 million on affordable housing from 2012-17 — but most of that was federal block grant money, not county funds. In 2018, under pressure from the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, the county commission approved a one-time allocation of $3 million.

Those funds may not do much to satiate the growing need for affordable housing.

Last year, the county spent just over $14.7 million to either build or preserve 731 affordable homes, said affordable housing director Cheryl Howell. That included the county’s one-time $3 million contribution and the state’s more meager $1.3 million allocation.

But the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 Gap Report found that the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area still only offers about 21 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 households that make up to 30 percent of the region’s median income of $32,000 a year.

The report also said that there are only 78 affordable homes for every 100 families who earn up to 50 percent of that annual median income.

In Hillsborough County, an estimated four out of 10 households are already considered “cost burdened” — that means they spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing. It also means they qualify for housing assistance, and that number will continue to grow.

According to the University of Florida’s population projections, Hillsborough will gain an estimated 17,000 residents every month from 2020 through 2045.

By the end of 2020, the county’s 1.3 million population is estimated to grow to about 1.5 million.

“That’s a lot of households. That’s a lot of people,” Howell said. “And so if housing itself, not just affordable housing, is not developed it creates an even tighter housing market, which means that the cost of housing will continue to rise.”

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Haeusler’s search for a new place to live shows just how hard it is to find affordable housing in the bay area these days.

She hoped to be able to afford something she could rent for $800 to $900 a month.

But in Hillsborough County, the average fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment is $1,045 a month.

What she found, though, wasn’t very affordable and wasn’t close to her church, either.

The Ella at Encore apartments on the outskirts of downtown Tampa offered income-based rent on a sliding scale, but she said both developments had wait lists up to four years long.

Haeusler said she found a two-bedroom apartment in Zephyrhills advertised as “low income housing” with a monthly rent of $850 and a move in fee of about $2,400. But that’s in Pasco County, about a 30 minute drive from Grace Episcopal.

As her shoulder began to heal, Haeusler finally signed the lease earlier this month for what she called an “affordable” apartment in the Northdale area for $951 a month in rent. That’s more than 30 percent of her income, which means she falls within the 40 percent of Hillsborough households considered “cost burdened.”

She was allowed to keep her pets, but it still cost her $1,500 to move in. The experience, she said, inspired her to join the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality to do what she can to prevent others from reliving her ordeal.

To demonstrate the crushing need for affordable housing, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp dropped this number: There are 22,000 people on the Tampa Housing Authority’s wait list alone for public or Section 8 housing.

There are so many on the list that the housing authority is no longer adding people to the list. The agency’s website warns that the wait list for rental assistance “may not re-open for another 5-7 years or longer.”

“The reason they close it is because they don’t want people to believe there is any imminent chance of them having hope for a better situation,” Kemp said before the April 17 vote. “I think it’s imperative we do this.”

Commissioners, though, have yet to decide where in the budget they’ll carve out that new $10 million commitment to fund affordable housing — or how they’ll spend that money going forward. Those discussions will take place during upcoming workshops as they finalize the county’s budget for the coming 2019-20 fiscal year.

“We know the plight,” Commissioner Les Miller said. “Believe me, we know the plight.”

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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