New Affordable Housing Panel Discusses How To Use State Aid

A $711 million state plan offers new money and rules changes to promote affordable housing, but how much of it applies in the pricey confines of Wellington has been the focus of a recently created advisory panel in the village.

Local efforts so far largely concentrate on grants to rehabilitate existing homes that are relatively less expensive, as opposed to proposals to build new residences, the village’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee heard at a meeting Wednesday, Aug. 9.

The panel approved changes in village guidelines in an effort to align with requirements in SB 102, the Live Local Act, signed into law in March. Oversight by such a committee is one of the requirements to tap the latest stream of state money.

The state plan roughly doubled funding for certain housing and rental assistance programs, bumping up to about $700,000 annually the relevant money available to Wellington.

The bill also provides incentives for investment in new residences priced for working families through things like tax breaks and speeding up permitting. At the same time, some provisions weaken the say of local governments in matters such as rent control.

But Wellington staff had no plans for new construction projects featuring affordable housing to talk about before the committee at this stage.

“Aside from dollars that would be available to homeowners if they qualify, are we addressing anything else that provides incentives to developers?” Committee Member John Greene asked. “Because there’s a lot of things that go along with that bill, in terms of zoning, expediting applications and what not. Are we addressing any of those issues as part of that bill?”

Village Planner Christian Santa-Gonzalez said there is a “possibility” to add such elements going forward, perhaps involving a developer building affordable housing.

“From what the community needs are and what we have surveyed, it is mostly rehab,” he said, referring to grants to renovate less-expensive homes.

Such programs can offer assistance for replacing roofs, air conditioning and other features of a qualifying home, Santa-Gonzalez said.

The state bill represents the latest of many attempts, under various names and programs, to make homes more affordable to own or rent for people like teachers, firefighters and police officers. Home prices have soared in Wellington, falling back only slightly in the dips between booms, making living in the village challenging for many with middle-class or lower incomes.

The median home sales price in Wellington hit $675,000 as of July, up 8 percent from a year earlier, according to Rocket Homes Real Estate.

At least two developer proposals for 10 acres near the Mall at Wellington Green mention workforce housing, though such plans remain in the very early stages.

Committee Member John Bowers, who also sits on the village’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board, noted that desires for affordable housing can run into objections from neighbors about greater density and traffic.

In addition, such projects can be tricky to oversee. In recent years, some workforce housing plans in Palm Beach County have been accused of overcharging residents in violation of government requirements.

Wellington’s committee approved revisions to a Local Housing Assistance Plan, adding disaster repair among the ways to help qualifying homeowners.

Awards are projected to include up to $50,000 for owner-occupied rehabilitation and $15,000 for emergency repairs, an increase from previous limits.

Such a local plan is required for village eligibility to receive State Housing Initiative Program funding, estimated at about $414,000 for Wellington in the coming year, according to available records.

Even as the village program expands in some ways, it no longer takes applications for rental assistance or offers to help with security and utility deposits, as ratified by the committee Aug 9.

Committee Member Juan Pagan questioned the wisdom of dropping such assistance. “Not everyone in Wellington has a deep pocket,” he said.

But Santa-Gonzalez said that the village actually has seen few qualified applicants in those categories, as residents often exceed financial and income limits that govern such aid.

People who do not qualify but need help can sometimes be referred to other government or community programs for assistance, staff members said.

In other action, the committee discussed applications for $50,000 for improvements to Field of Dreams Park and $200,000 for three new courts at the Wellington Tennis Center, administered by the Florida Recreational Development Assistance Program.

Queried about why this was part of an affordable housing agenda, staff members said the recreation grant applications had to appear before an advisory committee, and this was the first one meeting quickly enough to meet a deadline.