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Group Aims To Attract Affordable Housing

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TAMPA - Commissioner Tom Scott often has heard from developers that they have few plans to build affordable housing in Hillsborough County.

As Scott listens to developers during land-use meetings, he asks them how many units will be labeled affordable. The answer, Scott said, is usually zero.

Knowing the need is there - and having worked with the city in the failed Civitas plan to build affordable housing in Central Park Village - Scott has assembled a task force to work with developers to bring affordable housing to Hillsborough County.

Members include officials from the county, Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, as well as affordable housing experts. The first meeting is Wednesday.

The shortage of affordable housing extends beyond Tampa's boundaries and into Hillsborough County as a whole, Scott said.

Housing is considered affordable if people earning a living wage - about $10 an hour in Hillsborough - pay no more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities.

``It affects more than just poor people but teachers, police, firemen, just everyday average people who want to experience the American dream,'' Scott said.

More than 1,000 people are on a Section 8 waiting list in Hillsborough, and 2,500 are on the list in Tampa. Under the Section 8 Rental Voucher program, housing authorities issue vouchers to very low-income people. For a family of four, ``very low income'' is below $26,100 yearly.

Dagmar Arja, Hillsborough's affordable housing manager, said she has seen homes priced at $65,000 three or four years ago now sell for more than $100,000. She has seen the effects of rising home prices firsthand when trying to help people through the county's first-time home buyer program. With land prices going up, she has a difficult time matching buyers with homes they can afford.

``No one is really developing affordable housing in the $100,000 to $125,000 range,'' Arja said.

Scott hopes the task force comes up with incentives to encourage developers to build low-cost homes.

The county could offer more density bonuses, meaning that if developers agree to build a certain percentage of affordable homes in their projects, they can build more units on the land, said former Commissioner Ben Wacksman, a task force member and president of Capital Realty Investors.

He also suggested waiving impact fees or fast-tracking the development review process for companies willing to build affordable homes.

Incentives are needed, Wacksman said, because rising land values increase market demand, and developers are more attracted to building for the higher end of the market.

Tampa Housing Authority Executive Director Jerome Ryans, who will be on Scott's task force, said the shortage of affordable housing is exacerbated by the increasing cost of land.

``You can't address affordable housing in a vacuum,'' Ryans said. ``People still need a place to shop, schools, transportation.''

Wacksman said that as land prices increase, developers have a harder time providing affordable housing.

``There's a tendency to not be able to see that in unincorporated Hillsborough County, but it's there,'' he said. ``If you can address this problem now, it can be a really positive for Hillsborough County and not the challenge it's going to become.''

Reporter Ellen Gedalius can be reached at (813) 259-7679.

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