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Sun Sentinel - August 12, 2003


By Lauren Heist and Milton D. Carrero Galarza

Can a city buy its way out of an obligation to provide affordable housing? Southwest Ranches is trying.

The town is in a crunch between a state requirement to allow affordable housing and infuriated residents who demand cheaper houses and apartments be kept out. The solution has been to cut a controversial $25,000-a-year deal with North Lauderdale -- a city 10 miles away -- to fulfill Southwest Ranches' affordable housing commitment.

"It seems a little peculiar," said Robert Stroh, director of the Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing at the University of Florida.

It may be the first time a Broward County municipality has tried to relieve its affordable housing responsibilities in a contract with another city, and some think it could be the start of a trend in South Florida as land values increase.

The unusual pact is expected to get a close review by the state Department of Community Affairs, the agency that expects cities to provide plans for development that include land meant for living quarters to accommodate low- and middle-income families.

"It's something we'll have to look at," said Ken Metcalf, a regional planning administrator for the Department of Community Affairs.

Affordable housing has been a loud and angry topic in Southwest Ranches since this community of 7,100 residents, most of them living on mini-ranches, became the county's 30th municipality in 2000. As part of an obligation to become a town, under state law, Southwest Ranches must address affordable housing and provide 178 lower-priced houses or apartments.

A house is considered affordable in Broward County if a family earning about $44,000 a year can live there on no more than a third of its household income -- or about $14,600.

Town officials first attempted to meet the state's requirements in May by setting aside 30 acres for affordable housing at Sheridan Street and Southwest 190th Avenue. Without the 30 acres in the town's plan for development, officials worried the state could step in and dictate how the land could be used.

The submitted plan, according to town officials, kept open an option to shift the affordable housing obligation to another city.

Offering the 30 acres satisfied the state, but ignited an uproar among residents, who fear a developer could come in and build apartments on the site.

"I didn't come here to be next to low-income housing," resident Marianne Allen said in May, echoing the sentiment of many residents. Apartment buildings and small housing developments don't match the town's semi-rural makeup and most homes on 1-acre lots, residents argued.

To vent pressure from the residents, Southwest Ranches, where the 2000 median home value was $320,000 and some properties sell for more than $1 million, turned to North Lauderdale, where the median home value is $82,000 and there is an abundance of inexpensive apartments.

"We have more than enough affordable housing units in our city," North Lauderdale City Manager Mark Bates told his City Commission the night it agreed to the deal in late July. "It allows them to give us a financial benefit."

On paper, North Lauderdale agreed to pick up 100 of the 178 low- and medium-cost houses and apartments originally intended to be in Southwest Ranches. The balance of the obligation to the state may be addressed or erased through other planning procedures, Southwest Ranches Town Administrator John Canada said. But the bottom line, Canada said, would mean no low- or medium-income housing.

Southwest Ranches, meanwhile, has agreed to pay $250 a year for each residence North Lauderdale claims, totaling $25,000. The pact is good for as long as 20 years, with either party eligible to drop out after the first year.

State's OK needed

The dollars don't make sense, said Jaimie Ross, affordable housing director at One Thousand Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit growth-management advocacy group.

"How is $25,000 going to get you 100 homes? That's a joke," Ross said.

The money will not go to improving housing in North Lauderdale, a city of 37,500 residents. Bates said the money may be used for North Lauderdale's city-run charter high school, among other things.

North Lauderdale Commissioner Bruce Tumin voted for the deal because it amounted to free money for his city, but he questioned the consequences.

"It seems like the state is allowing cities to dump their affordable housing in other cities," Tumin said.

The agreement is allowed under the law, argued Canada. For the state to approve of the pact, however, Southwest Ranches has to prove its property values are too high to make affordable housing economically practical.

"We'll be making new ground that I think others will follow," said Canada, if the state agrees the contract with North Lauderdale is valid.

As property values in Broward County increase and the availability of land becomes more limited, agreements among cities could be one of the most practical ways to address housing needs, according to Terry Manning of the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

"It's not a loophole," Manning said. "There's no one answer to affordable housing."

Distance question

At least two other communities in the state have gotten out of their affordable housing requirements, but the circumstances were different, Metcalf said.

He cited the state allowing both Sanibel and Marco Island, on Florida's southwest coast, to transfer their affordable housing requirements to other cities, but he said in those examples what little property might have been available was cost-prohibitive.

Even if Southwest Ranches can prove its property values are too high for affordable housing to make sense, Metcalf said the town could still have trouble meeting the spirit of the law.

Generally, affordable housing is intended to provide working-class people with a place to live near where they are employed. Choosing a city 10 miles to the north like North Lauderdale might not meet that requirement because it is too far away, Metcalf said.

Canada said his town initially approached Hollywood and Davie, but no agreement could be reached. Southwest Ranches plans to submit the North Lauderdale deal to the state for review in the next few weeks.

Even if the state rejects the agreement, Southwest Ranches Mayor Mecca Fink vowed apartments would never appear in her city.

"Someone would have to hold a gun to our head, and even then they wouldn't get high-density housing in here," Fink said.

Staff Writer Jeremy Milarsky contributed to this report.

Lauren Heist can be reached at or 954-459-2280.