Live Local Act brings potential relief, problems for affordable housing in Sarasota County

Lofts on Lemon is located at 750 Cohen Way, in Sarasota.
Lofts on Lemon is located at 750 Cohen Way, in Sarasota.

A new state law that provides historic investment in affordable housing could bring relief to the severe crisis that is squeezing thousands of Sarasota County families and businesses.

While local experts say they are still digesting the details, many agree the new law will transform the housing landscape – even as it usurps control of certain planning and development matters from local governments.

The Live Local Act, signed into law in late March and taking effect July 1, earmarks $711 million for housing and rental programs statewide. It also speeds permits and creates a new series of tax breaks and incentives for developers to encourage the construction of workforce and affordable housing.

To seize on its possibilities, local business and community leaders are already planning a housing summit for later this summer.

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“I think this act will create more affordable housing, I really do,” said Jon Thaxton, long-time housing advocate and senior vice president for community investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

One reason is that it restores robust funding to affordable housing programs – after almost two decades of the Legislature diverting more than $2 billion from an affordable housing trust fund to other projects, according to the Florida Housing Coalition.

The new law also includes $252 million for the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP, program; $259 million for the State Apartment Incentive Loan, or SAIL, program; $100 million for the Hometown Heroes program; and $100 million for a competitive loan program to help projects in the pipeline sidelined by inflation-related cost hikes.

Jon Thaxton is senior vice president of Community Leadership for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Jon Thaxton is senior vice president of Community Leadership for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

“It is great to have those funds back in the hands of local government,” Thaxton said. “There is no question that that part alone will increase the affordable housing supply.”

Immediately, the monies could help numerous projects get off the ground after being stalled in the pipeline because of funding gaps, said William Russell, president and CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority.

One such project it could wind up supporting is the second phase of Lofts on Lemon.

"I think it has the potential to be a game changer," Russell said.

Still, housing advocates note, while $711 million sounds like a lot of money, it will go fast when spread across a state with a crisis as severe as Florida’s.

William Russell is CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority. Russell posed for a photo during a recent tour of Lofts on Lemon.
William Russell is CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority. Russell posed for a photo during a recent tour of Lofts on Lemon.

What could have an equal if not greater impact, they add, are new tax exemptions in the law for developments that include affordable units.

That includes units for households at 80% to 120% Area Median Income, or AMI, as well as those at 60% to 80% AMI – the latter a category considered to be true workforce housing

The tax exemptions go further – offering incentives for affordable units for households between 30% and 60% AMI – a dire need for Sarasota, Thaxton said, and which includes residents with disabilities.

Live Local zoning changes could have positive and negative impacts in Sarasota-Manatee

Other pieces of the law are drawing some criticism and concern around the state.

Focused on the supply side of housing, the law bars local governments from enacting rent control.

It also relaxes local zoning regulations and bypasses local rules on density caps and height restrictions for some multi-family housing, which could have far-reaching impact.

“It might be very good, it might be very bad,” Thaxton said. “But land-use changes from this point forward must be put through the filter of this new law.”

Some applaud the relaxation of certain zoning provisions – specifically allowing residential development in commercial- and industrial-zoned areas, as long as 40% of units are affordable for at least 30 years.

To Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith, those changes carry the promise of revitalization in many spots, including along U.S. 41.

“We’ve got a lot of older shopping centers where I think this could really give us an opportunity to have affordable housing and renovate the centers at the same time, maybe give it new life,” Smith said.

The housing could potentially attract shops, stores and restaurants to those areas while eliminating long commutes for many families.

“We need affordable housing close to where people are working,” Smith said.

But for cities – with less territory to work with than counties – a part of the law that allows developers to build in commercial and industrial zones using nearby residential height and density limits – which are often much higher –raises thorny questions.

Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch
Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch

Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch – who stressed, like the others, that she is still studying the law – worries about the implications for traffic and infrastructure nightmares.

Under the new law, developers could push heights and densities to the maximum not just downtown but also in the many commercial and industrial zones that abut single-family neighborhoods, she said.

She envisions some communities suddenly becoming overwhelmed with enormous residential developments they weren’t designed to handle.

“If you are going to quadruple that (density), that is a massive impact,” she said.

Most troubling, she added, is that the City Council – and residents – will have no say.

The law precludes local governments from blocking developers’ plans that otherwise meet qualifications and regulations. Applications would be administratively approved. In the process, Ahearn-Koch said, public feedback and past, hard-fought changes to comprehensive plans will not count.

“It takes the citizens’ voice out of the community planning process and the growth process,” she said.

While some aspects of the law seem promising, she added, the state in this instance is applying a one-size-fits-all approach to a problem that needs many different types of tools.

“This ginormous brush stroke of an act is really concerning.”

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'Everybody’s got a dog in this fight, whether you like it or not'

Housing advocates are mobilizing to capitalize as fast as possible on the law, knowing that relief through new construction will be slow in coming to thousands currently struggling in the housing crisis.

They agree that the law alone won't solve the problem, noting that past incentives to developers have failed to create affordable housing.

To seize the moment, nonprofit and business leaders are planning a housing summit and hope to form an affordable housing task force and a master strategy for Sarasota County.

“We are trying to figure out how to use this as a catalyzing agent to get developers and other community partners to really approach this in earnest,” said PJ Brooks, COO of Community Assisted and Supported Living, or CASL.

All ideas will be on the table, including past recommendations by housing advocates: everything from mandatory inclusionary zoning to locally supported trust funds, from private investment to the use of government surplus lands.

“We haven’t really figured out how to activate multiple affordable housing strategies that are right at our fingertips,” Brooks added. “We need to bring the players together to do that.”

The summit, expected to be held later this summer, would include area businesses, nonprofits, developers, housing agencies, and officials from local government, said Matt Sauer, collaboration and impact officer at Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.

“This is all hands on deck,” Sauer said. “Everybody’s got a dog in this fight, whether you like it or not."

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One big player in plans for the summit is the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.

Area employers – from hospitals and schools to local manufacturers – have reported major problems recruiting and retaining workers due to a severe shortage in workforce housing.

In a recent survey of its members, the chamber reported that 83% said that the lack of affordable housing directly affected their businesses. And 80% said they favored discussion of policy and zoning changes to support more affordable housing, said Heather Kasten, the chamber’s president and CEO.

Heather Kasten, President and CEO of Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce
Heather Kasten, President and CEO of Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

“The conversation is getting wider and broader,” she said. “It’s not just the nonprofits talking about a problem. It’s the business community talking about it and our government talking about it.”

Live Local clinched the idea for a housing summit. There's no time to waste, she said.

“There is no silver-bullet approach,” Kasten said.

“We all agree, there is a need to address this, and that, to me, is where the rubber meets the road and we start to get some traction.”

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Affordable Housing in Sarasota: Live Local Act has solutions, problems