Sunday, July 06, 2014


Put people in touch with property

   In 2011, a group of Sarasota County residents undertook the process of formulating a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. "StepUp End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now" was formally released in December of 2011. The plan can be found here.
   Some parts of the plan have been successfully implemented, like improvements to HMIS and the formation and continued success of "Street Teams." As we worked on the plan, we realized that the most difficult aspect was housing.  We favored the building of a "Come as You Are" shelter but realized the difficulty of site selection. In 2012, I went before both the Sarasota city and county commissions with a list of recommendations on how to move forward but was unsuccessful.
   Robert Marbut was hired by Sarasota County thereafter and in 2013 presented his plan. The Marbut plan addressed many of the same elements and recommendations as the StepUp plan. What Marbut really brought to the table was criteria for site selection and a several specific proposals as to possible locations. I don't think he anticipated the resistance from the community however. Unfortunately, any site for a shelter in Sarasota is going to meet with sustained vocal objections. Though many of the specific concerns could be addressed, I do not believe there is the political will to overcome the dissidents. Without a location for a shelter, the residents of Sarasota will continue to endure the collateral consequences of homelessness that are much worse than the feared effects expressed by those who live in the vicinity of any particular site.
      Tom Tryon of the Sarasota Herald Tribune has been a vocal proponent of the various efforts to address homelessness in our community. But as he noted in the lead editorial today; "Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota are not even close to creating a recommended shelter for chronically homeless adults." There continues to be an immediate humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed, but it may be impossible to do so in the face of opposition. Therefore, the editorial notes, we must continue to look for other solutions as well. "Housing First" is an idea that has been successful in many other communities. The chronically homeless are moved into permanent housing instead of a temporarily assisted in a shelter. The hurdle in Sarasota is the lack of affordable rentals. Therefore, the editorial concludes: "a plan for reducing homelessness must include initiatives to expand the stock of affordable rentals."
      So how might we accomplish this expansion? Where might the stock of housing come from? The answer has been right in front of our eyes for the past five years. In a front page article in the Herald Tribune today, Josh Salman points out there are about 1,600 vacant home in Sarasota and Manatee counties, that he has labeled "zombies." Essentially, banks began foreclosure proceedings, people abandoned the houses, the foreclosure action stalled, and the property has remained vacant, in many cases for years. Apparently the banks have no incentive to complete the foreclosure or rehabilitate the property and return it to the marketplace. Nor are they paying for insurance or property taxes while the homes deteriorate. This not so benign neglect is hurting everyone -- neighbors, communities, local government, the court system, and the overall market. Meanwhile, children and families and the chronically homeless continue to live on the streets.
      We need leadership at the State level to put people in touch with properties. Banks should be held liable for taxes, code enforcement and safety conditions on the properties they now own. These financial penalties can be lifted if the bank turns the property over to an affordable housing trust. The trust would be responsible for rehabilitating the properties and identifying responsible tenants to inhabitate them. This would help free up additional affordable properties to house the homeless.
      Somehow our legislature continues to find millions of dollars to give away to private business interests yet they refuse to invest in the communities they purportedly represent. We must find a way to put people in touch with property for the benefit of us all.

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