Florida Realtors® is entering into a historic partnership with the Florida Legislature to pursue a new down-payment assistance program for frontline workers, according to a letter from the association’s CEO Margy Grant that was sent to its board of directors on Sept. 7. The new program is “intended to provide new opportunities for homeownership while protecting existing programs that provide housing for those in need, programs that have long been supported by Florida Realtors®,” Grant wrote in the letter.
The new partnership means that state lawmakers will seek to establish a new homeownership program for law enforcement, firefighters, nurses, and other frontline professionals during its 2022 legislative session. Because of the pending deal, Florida Realtors® has decided to indefinitely suspend its petition drive on housingfunds4housing.org. Florida Realtors® had been seeking to collect 1 million signatures from Florida voters by Dec. 1 on petitions supporting an initiative that would place a constitutional amendment on the 2022 General Election ballot allowing Florida residents to vote to restore money to the Sadowski Affordable Housing Funds that the legislature had recently decided to divert to other state programs.
In a joint news release dated Sept. 8 from Florida Realtors and leaders of the Florida legislature, Florida’s top lawmakers expressed their approval of Florida Realtors® decision to halt the petition drive. Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson announced their support of the decision to suspend the housing-related ballot initiative and said legislative solutions rather than a constitutional amendment would be the most timely and effective way to address issues related to affordable housing and home ownership.
“The Florida Legislature and the Florida Realtors® have a long, productive history of working together on pro-business, pro-family, pro-homeownership initiatives. In recent years, support of the Florida Realtors® has been instrumental as we worked to increase funding for affordable housing developments and rental assistance programs, expand the tax credit for property owners who maintain affordable housing units, and permanently lower the business rent tax,” said the legislators.
“We commend the decision by the Florida Realtors® to suspend their ballot initiative. As we have seen in recent months, the housing market is extremely fluid, and fluctuates based on a variety of factors, which are outside of the Legislature’s control. Constitutional amendments, while instrumental in defining the ideals of the framework of our state government, do not provide the flexibility needed to respond to the ever-changing housing situation in Florida. Legislative solutions derived from the input and expertise of the entire coalition of stakeholders and experts who work on housing-related issues remain the best way to address housing challenges that impact families across our state.
“Housing challenges impacting our state and the entire nation have placed a tremendous burden on hard-working Floridians trying to pursue their dream of homeownership, and we are committed to doing what we can at the state level to help more Florida families overcome this challenge,” the lawmakers continued. “The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on opportunities for health care workers, teachers, law enforcement officers, and first responders to find affordable housing options within the communities they serve. As we head towards the 2022 Legislative Session, we look forward to again working with the Florida Realtors® and other housing stakeholders to develop effective legislative solutions, while at the same time maintaining the flexibility needed to fund the many other critical priorities of our state.”
Background on Florida’s affordable housing programs
Earlier this year Governor DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill 2512, Documentary Stamp Tax Distributions, which was passed by the legislature last session. A conforming bill associated with the state budget, the legislation establishes a three-part statewide infrastructure plan to prioritize investing in state and local affordable housing programs as well as projects that will mitigate the impacts of sea level rise, and enhance wastewater programs, including septic-to-sewer conversions.? The new framework is meant to provide predictable funding for all three infrastructure priorities on a recurring basis.
Under the distribution outlined in SB 2512, during the upcoming fiscal year, affordable housing programs would receive over $200 million. Programs established to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise and enhance wastewater programs would each receive approximately $111 million. (These amounts do not include federal funding.) Revenue estimates for documentary stamps are updated several times each year.
Appropriations of state housing funds are only a fraction of the dollars available to operate affordable housing programs. While state spending has averaged $160 million annually over the past five years, available federal resources have averaged $642 million annually. This year, there is also an additional $1.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program for local governments to assist residents faced with affordable housing issues, including rent and utility payments.
The appropriations from the State Housing Trust Fund and the Local Government Housing Trust Fund are administered by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC), which is a public corporation of the State of Florida that is administratively housed within the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
The FHFC administers both federal and state resources to finance the development and preservation of affordable homeowner and rental housing and to assist homebuyers with financing and down payment assistance. State funding for affordable housing programs is provided from documentary stamp tax revenues that are distributed to the State Housing Trust Fund and the Local Government Housing Trust Fund. The FHFC is also authorized to receive federal funding directly from the federal government for its housing programs; these funds are deposited outside of the State Treasury. In 2020, the FHFC received $789.5 million in federal funds. In the early years of operation, the FHFC accessed only federal resources to finance housing initiatives.
To leverage and augment these programs, the Florida Legislature began appropriating additional funding for state programs in the late 1980s. However, it was the enactment of the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act in 1992 that created a source of revenue for affordable housing from a portion of documentary stamp taxes on the transfer of real estate.
Since the start of Florida’s economic recovery in Fiscal Year 2012-13, documentary stamp tax revenues and the distributions to the housing trust funds have grown rapidly, outpacing annual growth in both the consumer price index and Florida’s population. Each year as part of the budget process, the Legislature determines the use of the revenues in the housing trust funds, in many cases transferring portions of the distribution to the General Revenue Fund. SB 2512 includes language that specifies that funds distributed to the State Housing Trust Fund and the Local Government Housing Trust Fund may not be transferred to the General Revenue Fund in the General Appropriations Act.
Expanding an Affordable Housing Tax Credit
During the 2021 Legislative Session, the Florida Legislature also passed House Bill 7061, Taxation, which expands a current tax exemption for certain affordable housing properties. Before this year, Florida law offered property owners who provide affordable housing to low-income individuals and families a 50% discount for property taxes on these units. The discount applies only to properties with more than 70 units and begins after the property has been recorded as an affordable housing property for 15 years. HB 7061 expands this property tax discount to 100% of property taxes while continuing other eligibility requirements, according to the news release.
According to Grant, Florida Realtors® is going to continue to work during the next few months with the Legislature on specific details of the new program, as well as other efforts to support affordable housing. “These new housing efforts, including an additional $50 million in anticipated funds for down-payment and closing-cost assistance for front-line workers, will replace the long, complex petition drive process. Importantly, these funds will be available as soon as next year, rather than in 2023 at the earliest if we had proceeded with the ballot initiative,” she said.