County official slams $200 million affordable housing plan

But County Commission allows proposals for a $200 million affordable housing bond and a $150 million water resources bond to move to the next stage.

affordable housing

After hearing a non-profit group’s presentation Tuesday to urge the Palm Beach County Commission to borrow $200 million to build affordable housing, the county’s director of housing and economic development took the floor. 

Jonathan Brown, a participant in crafting the Housing Leadership Council’s 28-page report recommending a bond issue, began to pick it apart, point by point, in comments to his boss’ bosses, the county commission. His words drew dismay from the report’s champion, County Commissioner Mack Bernard.

The report “is really at an infancy stage,” Brown began. It doesn’t provide a clear definition of affordability. It ignores viable federal subsidies. To keep its recommendations to a manageable number, it dropped discussion of one of the steering committee’s guiding principles, a linkage fee that requires builders of market-based housing to contribute toward affordable housing.  

“This county commission should be brought all of the funding sources,” Brown said from his seat next to top county administrators. “We need to make sure there is transparency.”

affordable housing
A slide showing concerns raised by county housing director Jonathan Brown during Tuesday’s Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (PBC TV Channel 20)

He feared gentrification, a negative for low-income residents in minority neighborhoods who, as new housing stock is developed, end up priced out of their homes and apartments.

The report used the word “displacement” instead of gentrification and he said Housing Leadership Council members told him that not all gentrification is bad.

“I would like to know what good gentrification would look like,” he told commissioners.

While Housing Council members asked commissioners to embrace the report’s centerpiece $200 million bond issue in time for a referendum this fall, Brown told commissioners the report wasn’t ready.

“More meat needs to be put on the bone,” he said. “I would love to work with HLC to ensure the necessary meat is on these bones.” 

Read the report: “Housing for All: Palm Beach County’s Housing Action Plan”

More OnGardens.org coverage: $350 million in taxpayer dollars at stake

workforce housing
County Commissioner Mack Bernard speaks Tuesday during the Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (PBC TV Channel 20)

Commissioner blasts county housing efforts

Brown would get his chance. 

Bernard would propose that all the sides get together with staff, including Brown, to hash out a final proposal that would determine how much money to seek, what borrowing method to tap and what levels of need to target.

But first, Bernard snapped back.

“For you to make those comments today,” he told Brown, “They’re disgusting. … The HLC presented a plan to us. What’s your plan to address this crisis besides all of these things you want to throw at us?”

And, after a brief exchange, Bernard added: “You’ve had plenty of dollars that you’ve wasted and you’ve never built anything. Now you’re telling me I’m supposed to trust you to create these units?” 

An hour later, toward the end of the four-hour discussion, Bernard had cooled.

“We’re all passionate about housing up here,” he said. 

Bernard agreed to attend meetings aimed at hashing out the differences. 

The task will be supercharged by commissioners’ hesitancy to borrow huge sums, possibly with voter approval, without any fixed set of projects to sell to the public. 

No affordable housing project list exists

While commissioners insisted on seeing a list of “shovel-ready” projects that would get money, the Housing Leadership Council explained that no such list existed.

Housing Leadership Council
Jack Weir, chairman of the Housing Leadership Council. (PBC TV Channel 20)

“The rationale behind the bond issuance was to provide a large pool of funds that’s available to all comers,” council Chairman Jack Weir said. “It would send a clear signal to the development community: We have a lot of funds available if you include workforce housing in your projects.”

“The goal is ambitious here: It’s 20,000 workforce housing and affordable housing units over the next 10 years,” he told commissioners. “That’s $10,000 a unit. So I don’t want to represent that the bond proceeds alone will get the job done.” 

By combining with other government subsidies and private investment, the approach would generate more than $1 billion in new housing construction over the next 20 years, said Skip Miller, the head of the council’s steering committee, which produced the report called “Housing for All: Palm Beach County’s Housing Action Plan.”  

The Housing Leadership Council is a not-for-profit 2006 spinoff of the powerful Economic Council of Palm Beach County, which endorsed the plan.

debt service
Slide shows what would happen to property taxes if Palm Beach County commissioners opted to issue $300 million worth of general obligation bonds. (PBC TV Channel 20)

How taxpayers will cover the debt

After Brown’s comments, the Housing Leadership Council’s CEO, Suzanne Cabrera, explained that “gentrification equals displacement” and the council “said we would work on both.” 

The report includes a definition of gentrification and says under the definition of displacement: “While displacement occurs routinely in low-income neighborhoods, when it occurs in the context of new development and an influx of wealthier residents, the displacement becomes a characteristic of gentrification.”

Miller pointed out that 15 county staffers, including Brown, attended steering committee meetings but the council chose to limit the report’s recommendations, which numbered 58, out of a fear of diluting main points. 

“It’s a draft. But we have to move forward,” Miller said. If the county decides to pursue a bond issue, there’s still a year before the money would begin to flow, providing plenty of time to hone the plan. 

And Weir added, also in response to one of Brown’s comments, that the linkage fee came up late in discussions and was a “non-starter for the business community.”

Among remaining questions is how much debt would be repaid through property taxes in a “general obligation” bond, which requires voter approval, and how much through non-property tax revenues, which would not go before voters. 

Bernard suggested $100 million go before voters in November and $100 million come from revenue-backed bonds, which can be available far sooner.

bond issue
County Commissioner Dave Kerner speaks Tuesday at the Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (PBC TV Channel 20)

$150 million water bond

Complicating matters is the debate that absorbed the commission for more than two hours Tuesday morning. Kerner and members of Sustainable Palm Beach County, a non-profit headed by former County Commissioner Karen Marcus, asked commissioners to place a $150 million bond issue on the ballot to tackle water resource and storage projects. 

Despite questions about how the money would be spent and whether $150 million is too much, five commissioners supported moving forward with the water resources bond, most likely on the August primary ballot, which means ballot language has to be approved in May. 

Two commissioners, Robert Weinroth and Maria Marino, opposed the water resources bond and others suggested taking advantage of money in hand to shrink it to $100 million. 

“I can’t support this,” Weinroth said. “Not because I don’t want clean water. I just think the word financially constrained is a euphemism for people going broke right now.”

environmental bond
Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino addresses a water resources bond proposal Tuesday. (PBC TV Channel 20)

Marino, who won her seat by defeating a comeback bid by Marcus, said she would like to see how money from state grants is spent before committing to raising more. 

“Too many people right now are losing their jobs that can’t afford their rent. if expenses go up for landowners they’re just going to pass it along to their renters,” she said.

Kerner asked staff to bring back ballot language and an updated list of ranked projects in time to get a referendum on the August primary ballot.

He called water a pressing issue. 

“We can all agree that we have some very serious concerns, some have used the term crisis,” he said. “This is the first step on a much longer, important journey.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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