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Changes to CHR program get support

By Staff | Apr 30, 2019

TIFFANY REPECKI Sanibel City Councilmember Holly Smith, outgoing liaison for the Below Market Rate Housing Review Sub-Committee, speaks during the recent meeting on possible program changes.

In an effort to increase affordable housing on Sanibel and who is eligible for it, a city subcommittee recently agreed to recommend to the Sanibel Planning Commission some changes to the program.

On April 23, the Below Market Rate Housing Review Sub-Committee met with city staff and Community Housing and Resources, the non-profit organization that provides affordable housing in partnership with the city. The subcommittee is staffed with members of the planning commission, which conducts an annual review of the housing program and proposes any potential changes.

Subcommittee recommendations approved by the commission go on to the city council.

At last week’s meeting, the subcommittee members Commissioners Roger Grogman, Karen Storjohann and Eric Pfeifer voted 3-0 to draft the 2019 annual report from the summary minutes and discussion and to suggest program changes to the planning commission at its May 14 meeting.

One is raising the area median income, derived from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to 160 percent to make the program more accessible to a wider income field, and another is exempting mixed use properties from a square foot penalty if they provide affordable housing.

Melissa Rice

Prior to the vote, CHR Executive Director Melissa Rice spoke about the program.

She explained that the organization currently manages 74 rental units and 14 owner occupied, also known as limited equity ownership, units a total of 88. CHR follows HUD’s income guidelines.

“Our waiting list currently is fluctuating,” Rice said.

She reported there are about 12 waiting for a rental unit and eight for an LEO unit.

“The majority of them are one-bedrooms,” Rice said of what the rental applicants are waiting for, adding that one-bedrooms are the type of unit CHR has the least number of in its inventory.

Applicants typically spend a couple of months on the waiting list.

She told the subcommittee that several of the units were updated with new flooring, carpeting and cabinetry within the last year, as well as a new roof for one unit. Another six were renovated with new gutters, air conditioners and water heaters. In addition, a Mahogany Way playground was updated.

“We’ve had some major renovations over the last year,” Rice said.

In May, CHR initiated a new program in partnership with local businesses called Give Back Wednesday. Since its implementation, the program has raised about $37,000 in funding.

Asked by the subcommittee about her requests, Rice cited the area median income.

“We would like to see it raised to 160 percent,” she said, noting that it stands at 120 percent.

Rice added that using 160 percent raises the eligibility to $77,000 for a family of three.

“I think it would be a benefit to most of the employers and the community as a whole on Sanibel,” she said, explaining that CHR could then consider a broader array of applicants and serve more people.

For example, CHR has three “very low income” units available that it could be renting.

“But these people make too much,” Rice said of the applicants.

She noted that CHR also installed a new computer system over the last year which allows the organization to manage and track properties at different guidelines, so the change is doable.

During public comment, resident Claudia Burns spoke to what Rice said. She explained that she knows people who would like to take part in the affordable housing program, but they make too much money.

“We have to be practical and look at those incomes,” she said, citing police officers, firefighters, medical professionals and teachers. “So that people of this type can quality for this type of housing.”

“To be practical about this program, we need to bring it up-to-day to today’s standards,” Burns added.

Rice also voiced adding 12 to 16 more units to CHR’s inventory as a request.

“We have been diligently looking at several properties on the island, as well as re-purposing properties,” she said, pointing out a needs assessment study conducted in 2015 by Florida Gulf Coast University that found that the organization needed 33 units, on top of its 88, to meet demand.

Rice explained that “high-rises” are not something it wants.

“To keep with the feel of Sanibel, we want to stay smaller,” she said. “We like being throughout the island, as well.”

Rice reported that CHR established an expansion committee, which has been meeting over the last year, and is currently looking at city-owned and privately-owned properties. She explained that there is a plan in place for financing, but the numbers can quickly add up. For example, a $1 million property can turn into a $3 million to $4 million project when site preparation and construction are added in.

“A lot of that takes funding, which is why we look so much to the city,” Rice said.

She added that getting into the $3 million to $4 million range to build that 12-unit building would force CHR to seek federal funds to complete the project, which would impact the guidelines it works off of.

Rice explained that it is the reason why the organization seeks alternative funding sources.

She reported that the CHR committee compiled a list of city-owned properties that it thought could be potential housing sites, but it learned none of the properties were viable after talking with city staff.

During a discussion on how to increase CHR’s units, mixed use properties were brought up.

“It is currently permitted under the Sanibel Code,” Roy Gibson, senior planner for the Community Services Department, told the subcommittee of residential-commercial combined-use property.

However, he explained that there is a penalty associated with the use. For each unit, the penalty is a loss of 1,000 square feet of commercial floor area. Gibson noted that the subcommittee could suggest that the penalty be removed for mixed use properties that designate the units for affordable housing.

“That would certainly incentive them,” Storjohann said.

After the meeting, Rice responded to the subcommittee’s support and recommendations.

“I’m super thrilled,” she said of the proposal to raise the area median income to 160 percent. “We’ve been trying to get that moved for some time we finally have enough data to back it up.”

Rice added that the data shows HUD’s guidelines are not a one-size-fits-all for all communities.

As for exploring mixed use properties as an option, she said CHR is open to the idea. Rice explained that it is a growing trend across the country and it can be beneficial for communities like Sanibel.

“To have people living where they’re working,” she said.

Rice even floated the idea of developers meeting with CHR before finalizing their plan.

“Why not talk to us and see what we can do together?” she asked.

“I would love to see that happen,” Rice added.