Housing bond finds support, just not for this year

A potential property-tax-backed bond to create and maintain affordable housing found general support with the Gainesville City Commission but seems unlikely to appear on this November’s ballot.

At its general policy committee meeting on Thursday, the city commission discussed issuing a potential general obligation bond to help create affordable housing in Gainesville, and voted 5-1 to have the staff develop a framework for how a $50 million bond could be spent. The framework likely would return to the commission in July.

A general obligation bond from the city would be paid back through property taxes, and could only be used to fund capital projects, such as new buildings or the renovation of existing buildings, said Morgan Spicer, the city’s interim policy oversight administrator.

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Because they are property-tax based, any general obligation bonds would need to be approved through a vote of the citizens.

However, the mayor and three commissioners said they weren’t interested in putting it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who voted against asking staff for a framework by July, said that while she thinks the housing bonds have merit, she doesn’t think voters would be willing to support multiple tax increases. A proposed infrastructure/Wild Spaces and Public Places tax is already scheduled for a November vote.

“I am afraid this would sink the Wild Spaces and Public Spaces initiative on the ballot,” Chestnut said. “That would be totally unfair to people in the county [and] to the seven municipalities that are depending on Wild Spaces and Public Places funding.”

In order to get the municipal bonds on the ballots, the commission would need to have approved ballot language and officially notify the county in August, according to city staff. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos kept the bonds a possibility by asking for the framework and additional discussion in July.

“City voters understand the need to fund city priorities,” Hayes Santos said. “I strongly believe that our city voters will pass both of them if this is placed on the ballot.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said there wasn’t enough time to make arguments to the voters for the tax.

“Gainesville voters tend to support taxes on ourselves, but we do that  because good cases have been made for them many months out and education has happened,” Ward said. “In theory, given plenty of time to work on this, it could work beautifully and help a lot of people.  But as a last minute, let’s shove it in the door [item], I think it’s a train wreck, frankly, politically.”

Ward said he also was concerned about the lack of a detailed plan and the commission’s inability to describe how $50 million in funding could be spent.

“I don’t know the details of this,” Ward said. “That means it is really hard on any of us to go into the community and knock on doors and say you should spend $75, $100, $150 on your tax bill to do this because we can’t answer the questions about how it specifically is going to work.”

Commissioner David Arreola said the timeframe for deciding to put it on the ballot was very quick but asked his fellow commissioners to keep an open mind until they look at the requested framework.

“The only way we can make a serious, lasting, direct investment [in affordable housing] is with dedicated funding that is produced by the government,” Arreola said. “This [housing bond initiative] is probably the most impactful thing we can count on.”

Commissioner Reina Saco said she wouldn’t vote to put the housing bonds before the voters in November but did support continuing to develop a plan for how the bond money could be used.

“I am concerned because while I love the idea, we don’t have much of a plan,” Saco said. “What I would really love to do is work on it and have that ready in January to put it out in 2024. Work out what we want to see done and get it ready for the next commission.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said he would like to see more details about what the city would be able to build with the money, options for distributing the money and ways to keep bond-built projects as affordable housing in perpetuity.

“I think that this is a significant solution to a challenge that we have,” Poe said. “I think the right time to put it on the ballot is in two years.”

He said if the commission voted to put the housing bonds on the November ballot “we’re not going to have a well-vetted development proposal of how this money is going to be spent.”

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