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Miami Herald - Apr. 25, 2008

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AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Dade lawmakers want more housing funds
Miami-Dade lawmakers are pushing legislation this year aimed at dealing with the county's affordable- housing crisis.

By LAURA FIGUEROA

TALLAHASSEE --
Last month's meeting went the way most do for the staff at Miami's Habitat for Humanity. Staffers watched as more than 225 Miami residents squeezed into the pews of the Hosana Community Baptist Church in Liberty City to learn about affordable-housing options.

''You can see the look of desperation and eagerness in their faces,'' said Habitat for Humanity spokeswoman Michelle Marcos. ``People are desperate for housing.''

Proposals aimed at meeting the need for affordable housing are working their way through the Legislature this year, but in a session marred by massive budget cuts the measures may not make much of a dent.

''It's tough asking for more money for affordable housing when the affordable-housing program back home is about to be taken over by the federal government,'' said Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata, a Miami Republican, and chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation.

Zapata was refering to the Miami-Dade Housing Authority, which has been taken over by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, a temporary move that came after years of problems and scandal. Several developers pocketed millions of dollars in public funds without delivering the housing they contracted to build.

So far this session the Dade delegation has succeeded in pushing a measure to extend the deadline for a county-imposed document tax on commercial property. The tax has generated $179 million for affordable-housing programs in Miami-Dade in the past five years, but was set to expire in 2011. The measure is scheduled for a final vote before the House on Friday, and will come before the Senate next week.

The proposal to extend Dade's authority to levy the tax was met by resistance from some legislators who contend some of that money should be directed toward a state pool of housing money.

Asked why he filed the legislation three years before the county's program was set to expire, bill sponsor Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican, said: ``Why put off for tomorrow what you can do today? It takes a couple of years for legislation to sometimes work its way through.''

Term limits will force from office some of the Dade delegation's influential legislators after this session -- like House Speaker Marco Rubio, a West Miami Republican, and House Democratic Leader Rep. Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach.

Lopez-Cantera and co-sponsor Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Beach Democrat, have added safeguards to ensure that half of the roughly $30 million generated each year is used for home-ownership programs. Previously, too much went toward affordable rental units, Lopez-Cantera said. Also added to the bill was a provision calling for a state audit every two years on the funds generated from the tax.

''We've put some language in there to keep them honest,'' Zapata said.

Another Dade-backed measure poised for passage would change requirements to let people with higher incomes qualify for affordable-housing grants in areas that have high costs of living. The measure is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican.

''The need for affordable housing is only increasing,'' Garcia said. ``This will allow us to stay in step with the needs not just facing Miami-Dade, but all of Florida.''

Garcia's measure would also encourage local housing programs to create incentives for developers to build affordable housing that meets eco-friendly standards.

The measure will go before the Senate for a vote on Friday.