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Miami Herald - 9/30/04

Broward County commissioners took aim at a growing shortage of affordable housing with a series of steps to combat the problem.

By Samuel P. Nitze

The Broward County Commission on Tuesday substantially broadened the range of homes that families can buy with ''affordable housing'' subsidies.

Commissioners sharply raised the maximum sale price for homes defined as ''affordable'' and boosted purchase assistance grants from $10,000 to $35,000 per family.

The price cap on new homes jumped from $124,000 to $229,000, and on existing homes from $109,000 to $152,000. The limits follow state guidelines.

Commissioners also agreed to create an affordable-housing committee charged with suggesting effective ways to help the county's low- and middle-income earners toward home ownership. The move came as soaring property values and a shrinking supply of developable land make that job increasingly difficult.

''The market forces are far more than the affordable- housing industry knows how to deal with,'' said County Administrator Roger Desjarlais.

The larger grants and higher price limits set Tuesday are meant to increase the pool of housing within reach of qualified buyers. Under the old limits, many would-be home buyers who qualified for help were unable to find houses under the cap, said Marlene A. Wilson, director of the county's Human Services Department.

'People would come back and say, `I can't do it. I can't find anything,' '' she said.

Wilson emphasized that raising price limits would not change who is eligible for money through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP), but instead give them more options.

Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs noted that higher price limits could benefit developers as well, allowing them to qualify for affordable-housing subsidies on more expensive projects.

She urged the commission to consider eliminating fee waivers, density bonuses, and other incentives for developers of the higher-priced homes. That way more assistance could be directed to projects serving the ''low'' and ''very low'' income brackets.

A family of four earning up to $30,100, or 50 percent of the county's median income, qualifies as very-low income. A family earning up to $48,150, or 80 percent of the median, qualifies as low income.

The commission directed staff to research how adjusting the incentives would affect the housing market and agreed to work with local governments before making a final decision.

Other suggestions surfaced during a wide-ranging discussion with one point of consensus: Providing more affordable housing is an urgent priority.

Mayor Ilene Lieberman said the county should use its housing money to acquire land and solicit bids for affordable housing projects.

Commissioner John Rodstrom suggested that, despite all of his colleagues' good ideas, the situation would only improve substantially when land prices moderate or moving to South Florida becomes less desirable.

''We are chasing our tail here,'' he said. ``There isn't any amount of money we can lay on the table right now that is going to change that.''