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Tallahassee City Commission considers how to solve the housing crisis

The outside of a residential building with lots of windows
Commissioners strongly disagreed in discussions over low-income and very low-come housing

At the Tallahassee City Commission’s annual retreat on Wednesday, the topic of affordable housing came up again and again. But the commissioners are far from agreement on how to solve the local shortage of housing for low-income and very low-income families .

Mayor John Dailey is a fan of Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps families build and improve their homes.

“But we are not going to get out of any crisis one or two houses at a time. It’s a bigger picture and it’s a more holistic picture,” he said. “And I understand we don’t all necessarily agree. I do believe that the city’s doing a great job right now with what we are doing with affordable housing. We’ve got a lot in the pipeline. And I know we’re not all on the same page with that, as I’ve heard.”

The disagreement is about how to provide a full spectrum of housing options. Right now, according to data from the city, 13,500 Tallahassee families who earn from 30 to 50 percent of the Area Median Income are spending half or more of their incomes on rent. Here’s Commissioner Jeremy Matlow:

“Over the last couple of years, rents have gone crazy. I’m looking at places I used to live that are 60, 70, 100 percent more than when I rented there just a decade ago,” Matlow said. “People’s wages aren’t going up. Their housing costs are increasing tremendously. And we have the authority and the power to help the people laid out in state law.”

Matlow thinks public housing should be part of the city’s approach…as a way to deal with the market’s failure to produce housing that’s available to low-income and extremely low-income families.

“What we’ve seen historically…the most successful programs for low-income housing have been public housing. If you talk to people that lived in public housing, they are very fortunate and thankful to have that opportunity. What we’ve seen nationally for 40 years is a major disinvestment in public housing and its upkeep, and it’s left us in this predicament.”

“When I hear ‘public housing,’ I trigger," responded Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox. "And those of you in the room who look like me, you know why.”

Williams-Cox, who is African American, takes issue.

“Public housing has sometimes been equated to the projects,” she said. “And I want to make sure that we understand that when we use the term ‘public housing’ now, that is not what we’re trying to say. We’re not trying to house people with the same problems on top of one another just to get them somewhere.”

City Manager Reese Goad says there are 2,800 housing units currently in the city’s pipeline, either completed, under construction, in permitting, or in the planning stage. But very few are affordable for low-income or very low-income people. According to Assistant City Manager Abena Ojetayo, the 2,800 units represent “upwards of $560 million.”

“And what we’re doing -- and I think with your leadership is showing results -- is that we leverage policies, land use flexibilities and development incentives that really have become attractive to private development,” Ojetayo said. “A lot of these folks are coming to the table having leveraged state and federal tax incentives. ”

Williams-Cox says that’s a good strategy.

“To me, it is very smart to allow others to come to town to use their money to help us with our crisis,” she said.

But Matlow and Commissioner Jack Porter are proposing other ideas, such as limiting rental hikes based on the Consumer Price Index, and creating registries that make it easier to enforce housing codes. Porter believes those ideas could expand the options for low-income housing.

“Rent stabilization tied to CPI is something cities are considering that is legal in the state of Florida,” said Porter. “Rental registries. We can have it so that folks who have tenants, who own property, are required to register with the city so that we can inspect those homes. Cities do it completely differently, but whether it's every three year, every five years, there’s an inspection making sure that that rental home is up to code.”

Rent stabilization is a hotly disputed issue in Orange County, where 59 percent of voters endorsed a measure that would have limited rent increases to 9.8 percent over the next year. Orange County has gone to the Florida Supreme Court to block it. The industry group Florida Realtors and the Florida Apartment Association filed the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Dailey is in D.C at the National Conference for Mayors. He’s eyeing new building techniques to grow more temporary and semi-permanent structures to ease the housing crunch.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.