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Florida Senate advances bills to boost affordable housing and a wildlife corridor trail network

 Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg speaks out against Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the Senate Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Phil Sears
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg speaks out against Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the Senate Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Moving quickly on priorities of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, Florida senators Wednesday passed measures aimed at spurring more affordable housing for workers and boosting a trail network and wildlife corridor.

Senators unanimously approved what has been dubbed the “Live Local Act” (SB 102), which includes providing incentives for investment in affordable housing and seeking more mixed-use developments in struggling commercial areas. They also unanimously passed a bill (SB 106) designed to help link a statewide hiking and biking trail network to a wildlife corridor planned to stretch from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle.

House panels started moving forward Wednesday with the House versions of the housing bill (HB 627) and the trail bill (HB 915).

The Senate housing bill carries a $711 million price tag. Among other things, it would pre-empt local-government rules on density and building heights in certain circumstances, create tax exemptions for developments that set aside at least 70 units for affordable housing, speed permits and development orders for affordable housing projects and bar local rent controls.

Bill sponsor Alexis Calatayud, R-Miami, said the range of affordable housing strategies would make development financially viable.

“We are in a housing crisis and we are engaging through this policy a menu of tools, both for local government, both for developers, to increase the amount of affordable housing stock immediately and in three to five years,” Calatayud said.

Democrats raised concerns about issues such as prohibiting local rent controls and including industrial zoning as areas for mixed-use development.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the bill won’t end talk on the need to address the state’s affordable-housing problems, but it will change the way the shortage is viewed.

“What this bill does is it creates an environment in our state where decent, safe and affordable housing can be a reality for more Floridians,” Rouson said.

While the Senate would have to vote again on the bill if the House makes changes, Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said he expects the final version will change housing in the state.

“I believe once it is in statute, and it's implemented, we will see how it works practically, and we may still have to make some adjustments. But I believe what we're doing today is groundbreaking,” Powell said.

The bill would provide money for a series of programs, including $252 million for the longstanding State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP, program, $150 million a year to the State Apartment Incentive Loan, or SAIL, program, and an additional $100 million for the Hometown Heroes program, which is designed to help teachers, health-care workers and police officers buy homes.

The state budget for the current year includes $362.7 million for affordable housing.

The Senate passed the bills on the second day of the 60-day legislative session, a clear sign of Passidomo, R-Naples, prioritizing the issues.

The bill involving the trails and the wildlife corridor calls for a one-time $200 million expenditure to further work on the Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail Network.

The proposal also would increase from $25 million to $50 million an annual amount that goes to the trail network from vehicle-registration fees. In addition, it seeks to boost communities along the trail network — dubbed “trail towns.”

“It stipulates that the trails are developed within the wildlife corridor to maximize previously disturbed lands, such as drainage ditches, canal basins, abandoned roads and railways, and it recognizes trail town designation,” bill sponsor Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said. “So, this will provide entertainment and respite for those who decide to use the trail.”

The wildlife corridor, which is expected to cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete, is envisioned as connecting 18 million acres of land from the Keys to the Panhandle. About 8 million of those acres need to be secured.

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida