Affordable Housing Advisory Committee discusses incentives for affordable housing

AHAC MEMBERS

By RUBY KEARCE 

Walton County’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC) met for its regular meeting on July 18. Melanie Rowland-Mills approached the committee to discuss a list of housing incentives. Rowland-Mills began by explaining that 11 housing incentives need to be discussed, with the committee having discussed several of them already this year. So, Committee member Dr. Carolyn Zonia presented information on property tax discounts and affordability. 

Zonia’s presentation began with information from the Florida Apartment Association discussing specific strategies that can share costs of creating affordable housing. Some of these strategies include donation of county owned land, waiving of filing fees, and property tax discounts. The presentation then moved on to discussing soft and hard costs, hard costs pertaining to construction and labor costs, while soft costs pertain to fees that have to be filed such as environmental studies or architectural fees. 

Zonia went on to discuss the feasibility gap, which is the gap between having a profitable development and the maximum supportable rent based on the average mean income in an area. She explained that forgoing property taxes should give a developer a boost in order to stay profitable while allowing community members with median income to afford to live in said development. Zonia also highlighted secondary effects of forgoing property taxes, such as the economic impact of public investment, increased number of jobs, increased earnings for workers in the area, and increased economic activity. 

Zonia also opined that if two-thirds of documentary tax stamp revenue was not funneled into other programs such as; $17 million on legal costs against Disney, $12 million to fly immigrants, $10 million for election police, and $100 million for “DeSantis’ Militia,” that every county in the state of Florida could have over $3 million for affordable housing this year.  Zonia ended the presentation saying “At some point we’ve got to look and see where our tax dollars are being spent and what we want to spend it on.” 

Committee member Tom Baker then brought up the issue of the recently increased property insurance in the area. Baker agreed that this is an issue impacting everyone right now. Zonia went on to say that Floridians are currently paying four times the national average. Zonia said “Friday night a hundred thousand homeowners went to sleep knowing that their property insurance had been dropped for no other reason than they had Farmers.” 

Rowland-Mills then came back before the committee to continue the conversation around housing incentives. Another incentive the committee needs to discuss is the modification of impact fee requirements including reduction or waiver of fees and alternative methods of fee payment for affordable housing. Rowland-Mills then asked Walton County’s Planning Director Mac Carpenter if the county currently waives the application fees for Habitat for Humanity. Carpenter explained that Walton County’s Board of County Commissioners (BCC) passed a resolution allowing the planning department to waive any fees that they would otherwise charge an applicant. 

Rowland-Mills then moved to the allowance of flexibility and densities for affordable housing, explaining that in the past it would be recommended to consolidate the number of applications involved with a Florida housing application process. Rowland-Mills said that there are a number of public meetings required, which are currently for affordable housing development to increase the cost of housing and make development more expensive and less affordable. Rowlnd-Mills then asked Carpenter if the county still offers density bonuses. 

Carpenter replied that previously the density was not allowed within industrial zones, but the passing of Senate Bill 102 now allows qualified, affordable housing development within an industrial zone without modification of Walton’s code. 

Rowland-Mills then discussed the reservation of infrastructure capacity, stating that in the past the committee has not made a recommendation regarding this, but it is her understanding that there is no infrastructure capacity to reserve. She asked Carpenter if that was the case. Carpenter replied that he believes it is being reserved on a first-come, first-served basis and utilities are not Walton County operations. The utility services in the area are either private or owned by other local governments. 

The next incentive that Rowland-Mills wanted to discuss regarded Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), which is a section that is provided for inexpensive housing units to meet the needs of Walton County residents. Rowland-Mills explained that ADUs have been part of Walton County’s code since 1996 and almost every south county resident has one. Rowland-Mills said that it was limited to family members until 2019 when ADU’s were required to be used for long-term rentals rather than short-term rentals, asking Carpenter if that has changed at all recently. 

Carpenter responded that this has not changed, that Walton County has the availability of ADUs throughout unincorporated Walton County. He explained that they may not be used for short-term rentals with the exceptions of some of the larger developments where they got the deviation approved years ago, such as WaterColor and Watersound, but by and large ADUs are restricted to long-term rentals, with the intent to provide housing affordability resource in an area that has a larger number of short term rentals. 

Rowland-Mills then discussed parking and setback requirements, stating that the county reduced parking requirements for short-term rentals. Rowland-Mills said that it was her understanding that the county will be changing this since the renters of the short term rentals seem to be bringing an influx of vehicles to the area. She asked Carpenter if the parking situation has changed for long term rentals. 

Carpenter answered that unincorporated Walton County has one standard now, which is one space per 900 square-feet of living area, being consistent without short-term rental standards.  

Rowland-Mills asked Carpenter if Walton County still does not have a minimum lot size. Carpenter said that there is currently no minimum lot size. Rowland-Mills then moved the discussion to the modification of street requirements for affordable housing, stating that the committee has not previously made a recommendation on this issue. The committee has discussed that parking on the street is not a popular option and leads to safety issues. Rowland-Mills asked Carpenter about the mobility plan including a street plan for the county, and if it proposed to increase the street width. Carpenter explained that the plan does not include a reduction in street requirement component, but it is available through the county’s planned unit development process. 

Since all the housing incentives have been discussed, the next course of action is for Rowland-Mills to create a summary of all of the incentives and including them in AHAC’s annual report, which is due later in 2023 and will be presented to AHAC for approval.