published: Friday, November 16, 2012
County adopts Housing Program
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - With few changes, Highlands County commissioners Tuesday adopted recommendations to the county's Local Housing Assistance Program. A sometimes terse discussion was capped by a unanimous vote to accept the plan.
Even so, the new regulations will be short-lived, with a full re-write of the three-year LHAP plan slated for May.
Before that occurs, commission chairman Jack Richie wants spelled out exactly what the county would be mandated to do if it participates in the program and what rules the county will enact upon itself.
"I want to see that on hard paper," Richie said.
In her final meeting as a commissioner, Barbara Stewart explained that the plan had been assembled in a three-member committee, including herself, County Administrator June Fisher and housing specialist Lucy Castillo.
Stewart said the recommendations had been distilled from comments made by the county commission, housing committee members, housing consultants and citizens - cobbled together with the "hands-on experience" of Castillo and Fisher.
Stewart noted that in the last three years of housing assistance in the county, fueled by the State Housing Initiative Program, "kept changing" due to state-ordered mandates in terms of how the program was funded and how the money could be used.
When it came to the actual figures, Stewart urged commissioners to overlook specifics.
"I wouldn't focus so much on the numbers as focus on the categories and the changes in the program leading up to where we are today," she said.
Money for the local SHIP program originates in the Florida Housing Trust Fund. That money comes from documentary stamps, which are part of real estate transactions. Other funding comes from the local SHIP program itself, where percentages are kicked back from SHIP loans.
Ten percent is taken from housing loan totals for admin-istration, with another 5 percent taken out of money repaid to the program. That also is used for administration fees.
From 2010 through 2011, Highlands County received no SHIP money - instead it was given $350,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - better known as stimulus. Those dollars were funneled to the county through the Florida Homebuyers Opportunity Program.
Only seven clients were serviced through the program that year. The balance subsequently was transferred to the SHIP account for the following year.
"That really wasn't very successful," Stewart admitted.
Several commissioners expressed concern about "over qualifying" purchasers - that is, allowing people to buy homes that they ultimately could not afford. That discussion ensued after Castillo revealed new provisions showing the limit of $189,000 for a qualifying home had been raised to "90 percent of the average area purchase price".
"The statistical purchase area, how wide an area is that really?" asked Commissioner Don Elwell.
The statistical area transcends Highlands County, and includes areas as far away as Orlando. When asked, Castillo said the 90 percent number is based on an average purchase price of $247,000 - significantly higher than Highlands County's median home value.
Stewart reiterated that for the county to participate, local government officials would have no choice in how those numbers would be determined.
When Elwell asked if the 90 percent number could be reduced, Castillo explained it is a mandated level for participation in the program.
As for down payment assistance, Elwell asked if a proposed 1.5 percent investment by the applicants might be boosted to 3 percent. When advocates explained some people could not afford to put that much in, Elwell then asked if the levels might be tiered, using the categories of very low, low and moderate incomes on a sliding scale.
That idea also got little support from other commissioners. They finally settled on a 2.5 percent minimum down payment amount.
"Trying to be as nice about this as possible," Elwell said, "perhaps if some applicants find it a struggle to come up with $500 or $1,000 for a down payment - they might be better off renting for the time being."
Richie echoed those sentiments, saying people could be condemned to failure by local government's zeal to be "overly generous."
"Right now, we're having a hard time with the collection of some of the payments," admitted Fisher.
Castillo advises program applicants to scale back their selections to homes that they could realistically afford to purchase and maintain.
Elwell later suggested the idea of an "equity share" for the loan program, meaning that should applicants buy a home then make money selling it later, the program should get a percentage of that sale in their repayment. That was another idea that drew little support.
Richie cautioned Castillo that "strong oversight" of the program would have to be in force from day one. The alternative, he said, would be not acceptable.
For a while it appeared that Highlands County might be getting out of the subsidized housing business. Commissioners last year voted to give the lead of a multi-county housing consortium over to Hendry County and later turned back a grant after Housing Authority officials ignored warnings about bringing applications to the commission at the last minute.
That was followed by the retirement of former housing director Mary Foy and the housing advisory committee going dormant. Commissioners are expected to address the issue again after the first of the year, noting if they wish to keep on with the project, a new Local Housing Assistance Plan will have to be submitted by May.
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