KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers have been sweeping a state fund designed to help families pay for affordable housing to supplement other budget needs that don't include helping low-income residents find housing, a News 6 investigation found.
The Sadowski Trust Fund was established in 1992 to help ease the burden of housing costs, using money collected from a doc stamp tax on all state real-estate transactions. Specifically, the trust started with a 10-cent tax on every $100 of every real estate sale. In 1995, that tax doubled to 20 cents.
The consensus among lawmakers and affordable housing advocates regarding the state’s affordable housing trust fund is that it's properly funded but under-utilized.
The fund collects hundreds of millions of dollars every year, money that can go toward helping families and individuals find affordable housing including the homeless and first-time homebuyers.
For the fiscal year 2018-2019, the trust is expected to collect more than $300 million.
There are a multitude of programs financed by the trust, two of the largest being the State Apartment Incentive Loan Program, known as SAIL, and the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program, called SHIP. However, the housing programs rarely get the full share of the money collected from the doc stamp tax.
“They raid the trust funds and they make it their own slush-funds,” said State Rep. John Cortes (Kissimmee-D). "(Slush) is not too strong a word because that’s what they do.”
In his four terms as a Florida lawmaker, Cortes said he has witnessed state leadership stripping money from the trust designed to fund affordable housing.
“I think in the last 10 years they swept it for $2 billion,” he said.
News 6 found that Cortes's estimate was not far off.
In 14 of the last 18 years, including this year’s 2018-2019 budget, the State has swept almost $2.2 billion from the Sadowski Trust to help balance yearly budgets. Since 2000, the only years there were no sweeps were 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
“Not a penny should have been swept,” said Jaime Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition. “We have a housing crisis and this money is meant for housing.”
Ross and other members of the Florida Housing Coalition believe if the trust was set up to fund affordable housing, then that should be the fund's sole purpose.
“We don’t have to convince anyone anymore about affordable housing,” Ross said. “Everyone knows we need it. After so many years of sweeping the programs, we’re in the crisis.”
In addition to losing $2.2 billion in 18 years, for the past seven years, the Sadowski Fund has also lost an additional $450 million --$75 million per year-- to prop up the State Economic Enhancement and Development, or SEED, Trust Fund.
“Unnecessary. That's the reality of it,” said Mark Hendrickson, executive director of the Florida Association of Local Housing Finance Authorities. “Every year we add more things to the things we don’t tax, so you’re artificially creating a budget crisis by reducing revenue.”
In 2015, 744,662 Florida low-income renters paid more than 40 percent of their income for housing--up from 35 percent in 2005, according to the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.
Fast-forward two years and critics say the state still hasn’t made affordable housing a priority.
In a pre-budget forecast in late 2017, Gov. Rick Scott proposed taking $92 million out of the Sadowski Trust for the upcoming fiscal year running from July 1 of 2018 to June 30, 2019. House Speaker Richard Corcoran proposed taking $182 million out, but the Senate proposed fully funding the Trust, taking away no money at all.
For 2018-19, the Sadowski Trust Fund lost the full $182 million proposed by the House, with $123.6 million appropriated for local and state affordable housing programs.
More than $120 million sounds like a lot, however the money doesn’t go that far. Florida ranks third in the nation for the highest homeless population. Orlando recently tied with Las Vegas, ranking dead last in availability of affordable housing for low income renters.
In the 2018 legislative session, two bills were introduced to stop lawmakers from raiding the housing trust. State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) introduced a bill that made it through one committee, but then died in the next one. Over on the House side, State Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa) introduced a companion bill which was never brought up for debate and got no traction in its first committee.
With the governor, all state representatives, and some state senators, are up for re-election this fall, Cortes said he thinks the time is right for a change.
“It’s not a Democrat, it’s not a Republican, it’s not Independent,” Cortes said. “It’s everybody getting together working on a system where we get something done. We talk a lot and then we don’t do nothing. Talk is cheap.”