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Affordable Housing Ballot Initiative Halted By Florida Realtors

A "for sale" sign sits in front of a large brick house in the background.
Matt Rourke
Florida Realtors say they will work with legislative leaders to protect existing housing programs and create a program that will help nurses and first responders with down payments and closing costs.

Realtors are halting an effort to pass a constitutional amendment to ensure funding for affordable housing, saying they will work with legislative leaders to create a program to help people such as nurses, police officers and firefighters buy homes.

The decision, announced Tuesday night, came after the group Florida Realtors and the National Association of Realtors contributed at least $13 million to a political committee spearheading the effort to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot.

The committee, Floridians for Housing, had spent about $2.75 million as of July 31 as it worked to collect the 891,589 petition signatures needed to get on the ballot. The state Division of Elections had received 64,937 signatures for the initiative as of Tuesday.

“Floridians made it known through their broad public support for the ballot initiative that workforce housing affordability must be a top priority, and this has opened the door for positive discussions in the Capitol,” Florida Realtors President Cheryl Lambert said in a prepared statement. “The legislative leadership has committed to working with us to find significant, immediate solutions to Florida’s workforce housing crisis. This crisis cannot wait. Every day, we hear about workers who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic who can’t afford a home. This approach will help bring homeownership within reach of Floridians much faster.”

The proposed constitutional amendment came after years of frustration in the real-estate industry and among other groups about decisions by lawmakers to use money from a state affordable-housing trust fund, known as the Sadowski trust fund, for other purposes.

The proposal would have established in the Florida Constitution the State Housing Trust Fund and the Local Government Housing Trust Fund. It also would have required that the trust funds receive at least 25 percent of the revenue from documentary-stamp taxes --- which are collected on real-estate transactions --- and would have detailed how the money could be used to address affordable housing.

Getting the measure on the ballot would have involved a difficult --- and costly --- process as the 891,589 signatures would have needed to be submitted by a Feb. 1 deadline. As a preliminary step, the committee would have needed to submit 222,898 signatures to trigger a crucial Florida Supreme Court review of the proposed ballot wording.

Ultimately, the measure would have needed support from 60 percent of voters to pass.

But aside from the mechanics of reaching the ballot and passing the amendment, backers of the proposed amendment also ran the risk of angering legislative leaders. Republican lawmakers in recent years have taken a series of steps to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments and have objected to proposals that they see as encroaching on their powers to make policy and budget decisions.

The announcement Tuesday night by Florida Realtors said the decision to halt the constitutional amendment drive “was made following highly productive discussions with legislative leaders indicating strong support to address this (affordable housing) crisis.”

It said Florida Realtors, formerly known as the Florida Association of Realtors, will work with legislative leaders to protect existing housing programs and to create a program that would provide down-payment and closing-cost assistance for workers such as nurses, law-enforcement officers and firefighters. The 2022 legislative session will start in January.

“Front-line workers are the absolute foundation of our communities, something that has been made even more apparent during this pandemic,” Florida Realtors CEO Margy Grant said in a prepared statement. “They are putting their lives and health on the line every day to benefit those around them, yet Florida has no homeownership program in place to ensure that these heroes can live in the communities where they work. We’re pleased that legislative leaders recognize the importance of this issue and we look forward to working with them on meaningful solutions.”