New housing in Orlando. Credit: File, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Local officials on the ground working to help alleviate Florida’s housing crisis are now asking for a favor when the Legislature convenes in 2024: Fix the unintended consequences that came out of a signature policy initiative in the state Senate.
Florida lawmakers have already been hearing from elected local officials in the past few weeks, saying they need to readdress what’s called the “Live Local Act,” the new law that passed earlier this year to deal with issues that are hampering affordable housing and development in Florida.
“The Live Local Act, which I think your hearts are in the right place on it and we have a real workforce housing problem here in Hillsborough County, but what it does is it bypasses us as a local government when it comes to the land use and zoning,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen, of Tampa Bay, said at a legislative delegation last month. “I would ask that you all take a look at it next year.”
That was a reference to the law that says a proposed development need only be “administratively approved” without having to get approval by a board of county commissioners if the project satisfies certain regulations.
Another twist? The law allows housing to be built in areas previously zoned only for industrial purposes.
At another recent legislative delegation meeting — in Pasco County — County Commissioner Jack Mariano said the Live Local Act was a “great thing for a lot of areas.” But he added that the law is also detrimental to long-term efforts by county officials to bring more businesses to the area, now that housing developments are allowed to be built in areas zoned as industrial.
Overall, officials in other communities say they’re grateful for the hefty pot of state money — $711 million that was listed as the appropriation for the Live Local Act initiative, according to legislative records. But at the same time, they’re unhappy about the law’s inability to account for the unique characteristics inherent in each community when it comes to their comprehensive plans, by imposing a “one-size” fits all framework.
Florida’s two-month legislative session will begin Jan. 9, 2024, and some local government officials have been calling on state lawmakers to file a “glitch” bill even before the new session begins in January.
The Senate moved quickly
The Live Local Act was Senate President Kathleen Passidomo’s signature policy initiative going into the 2023 legislative session, and the bill moved quickly through both legislative chambers last spring.
Some Democrats criticized the measure for banning local governments from implementing rent control laws, but the legislation passed unanimously by the Senate on just the second day of the session. The House passed it a few weeks later and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in March.
The law gives tax breaks to developers who create multifamily and mixed-use residential properties with at least 70 units in any area zoned for commercial, industrial or mixed-use if at least 40% of those units are dedicated to affordable units for a period of 30 years.
But there’s been pushback from local officials.
“I think it’s too early to really know all the potential unintended consequences of this legislation,” says Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, in east Central Florida.
In his role as the [now former] president of the Florida Association of Counties, Constantine says he and his staff worked with Senate President Passidomo and her staff on suggestions as the bill was being drafted. He says the organization supported the proposal mostly because of the additional funding for state housing programs.
“Clearly the funding was needed and important, but we have never made any bones about the fact that we felt that there were some things that we did have concerns about,” he said about the final legislation. “Primarily taking away local governments ability in certain situations to govern when it comes to zoning and comp plans and we did feel that there would be, and we have suggestions for working towards suggestions on a glitch bill this year.”
Killing a crucial goal
Located on the west-central coast of Florida, Pasco County has been known as a bedroom community for people who work in Tampa and St. Petersburg because of its lower housing costs.
Local officials have worked for decades on recruiting more businesses in Pasco communities. But allowing housing to be built in areas zoned as industrial —now in the new law — will kill that crucial goal.
“Right now, 43% of our workforce commute outside the county, and it’s really what we call a talent drain,” says David Engel, the economic growth director for Pasco County.
“Our goal for a number of years is to balance our community so that we have job opportunities for our local labor force to avoid commuting ten to twelve hours a week in a car and causing our roadways to clog. So when we start taking indiscriminately industrial zoned areas that were earmarked for employment and we start inserting affordable housing projects inside of them, it causes quite a setback for us, because the employment is essential.”
Engel is an urban planner who was involved in housing policy for decades in New York.
“We applaud the state of Florida for providing some types of revenue, but to put a predominant amount of burden on counties and localities like Pasco County is not reasonable,” he says. “It undermines the broad approach of dealing with our workforce and affordable housing issues for our unmet needs. And it’s something that we would respectfully request be reconsidered.”
A six-month moratorium
In Doral, about 13 miles west of Miami, Mayor Christi Fraga and the city council approved a six-month moratorium on new development applications earlier this summer to give the city time to consider potential changes to its comprehensive plan and land development regulations in reaction to passage of the Live Local Act.
Fraga says that was needed to contend with a proposal from a South Florida developer that came to her before the Live Local Act passed this spring. The development includes the construction of 623 new apartments in five towers between 10 and 12 stories tall, according to the South Florida Business Journal. The new law says a city or county may not restrict the height of a proposed development below the highest currently allowed for commercial or residential development within one mile of the development or three stories, whichever is higher.
“I felt it was just not consistent with that area – not anything that we would allow with our zoning code – and I rejected his proposal right from the start and just told him that it was definitely not something that anybody would be willing to welcome in that zone or that area, especially with the kind of zoning that he had,” she says. “And that’s when he told me that he was keeping an eye on the Live Local Act and if it passed, he was going to be utilizing the law.” (The developer – the Apollo Companies – did not respond to multiple requests for comment).
Fraga calls the Live Local Act another preemption bill that takes powers away from local governments when it comes to land use decisions. She says the moratorium was needed because the law didn’t create any procedures for cities to implement any safeguards.
“There was nowhere where our code could address applications such as the one we saw on a parcel that is 18 acres next to a traditional neighborhood with potential 14-story buildings,” she says.
The legislation’s criteria for what qualifies as an affordable housing project was expanded to include households who make up to 120% of average median income (AMI). That means that in a place like Miami-Dade County, a single person making up to $81,960 or a family of four making up to $117,000 is now eligible.
20 Local Live Act projects
Take for example the case of a proposed development on a closed golf course in Plant City, located east of Tampa in Hillsborough County. The planning board there has twice rejected a mixed-use proposal as being incompatible with the local community. But unbowed and undeterred, the developer, Walden Lake LLC, recently resubmitted a new proposal which they say will now qualify as a Live Local Project, according to the Plant City Observer.
The proposal has 1,530 multifamily units and 468 townhome-style units made up of studio, one and two-bedroom unit up to three stories high.
The attorney representing Walden Lake LLC, Jacob T. Cremer, a partner with Stearns Weaver Miller in Tampa, said that his firm learned about the Live Local Act after the Plant City planning board rebuked their proposal for a second time earlier this year.
That’s when they pivoted towards providing more affordable housing in their package under the law to get it through a third time. And under the Act if it does receive administrative approval from Plant City, they won’t need to go through the planning board – meaning that the public won’t have the ability to weigh in on it.
Nick Brown is president of Save Walden Lake, a neighborhood association that has been opposing plans for developing that area for years. He says he appreciates the intent of the Live Local Act to “enable schoolteachers, policemen and firemen to be able to live close to where they work.” But he says that the developer’s new proposal is a complete “perversion” of the intent of the law, and says that his group is prepared to legally challenge it if it moves forward.
For his part Cremer says his firm is now working on upwards of twenty Local Live Act projects. He says developers are still trying to figure out if they can take advantage of the law so it works for them.
“The 40% affordable housing requirement is pretty substantial and so they have to make sure that it works for their investors and their lenders,” Cremer said. “So that takes a lot of time on the front end and we’re finding that it takes a long time to work with the local governments on these submittals because this is cutting edge stuff…when you’re working on something cutting edge like this, it does take some time to figure it out and see how it works and work through the kinks.”
A spokesperson for Senate President Passidomo tells the Phoenix that it’s too soon right now to determine whether any changes need to be made to the legislation.
“President Passidomo has been monitoring the implementation of Live Local over the summer, and she is familiar with the concerns raised by local government,” said Katie Betta, deputy chief of staff for communications. “She is always open to listening to local concerns – Live Local is the product of listening to such concerns over many years. As we … prepare for the upcoming session in January, she will continue to monitor the implementation closely.”
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