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Sun Sentinel - January 5, 2006

Builders challenge proposed rules for affordable housing in Palm Beach County

By Andy Reid

Building industry opposition has delayed a push for tougher affordable housing requirements that would reserve portions of new neighborhoods for reduced-price homes.

Palm Beach County commissioners were supposed to vote this month on the rules, but mounting concerns from home builders persuaded county officials to hold off on the proposal.

The delay was news to County Commission Chairman Tony Masilotti, who said Wednesday he preferred to press on with a vote this month despite "strong opposition."

"We need to address this now," Masilotti said. "The more time that passes, the less opportunity there is to capture the middle-class housing we need."

With home prices skyrocketing, county commissioners in November called for creating new rules that require developers to reserve 20 percent of new homes for affordable housing -- which the county considers homes up to $275,000.

The new rules also were supposed to allow developers to "buy out" of the affordable housing requirement, and the county could use that money to build reduced-price homes elsewhere.

Building industry representatives have questioned the percentage commissioners called for, as well as the potential costs of the buy-out.

Also, meeting the new requirements while maintaining profits could mean building multistory buildings or duplexes next to houses -- which could draw objections from neighboring residents, said Brenda Talbert, executive vice president of the Gold Coast Builders Association.

"We want to help solve this problem," Talbert said. "But on the other hand, we want to make sure we stay in business."

County officials plan to meet each week with building industry representatives to try to have a proposal ready for a vote in February, but no date has been set to take it to the commission.

"It is just a complicated issue," said Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker, who heads the county's affordable housing effort. "We did not have all the answers."

After median home prices hit $400,000 this year, county officials said they needed to add to the affordable housing stock or risk seeing teachers, nurses, mechanics and others from the "middle class" workforce get priced out of the area.

In addition to calling for new rules for developers, the county agreed in November to form a land trust to acquire property that could be used to build price-controlled homes. The land trust could also buy existing rental units to protect them from pricey redevelopment.

"The biggest problem we have in Palm Beach County is retaining our [affordable] housing," Commissioner Jeff Koons said. "We are losing our mobile home parks. We are losing our apartments. We are in the crisis mode."

Instead of requiring builders to limit some home prices, the county should explore more government financing help for homebuyers and consider eliminating fees levied on new homes, Talbert said.

Rules limiting prices on some homes will result in builders charging more for neighboring houses, which could make it even harder for residents to afford a home, Talbert said.

It could also lead to building more duplexes and townhomes in order to put more homes on less land, she said.

"Is the community tolerance OK with that?" Talbert asked. "We have experienced some backlash from community members who have a stigma about affordable housing."

While builders and county officials debate affordable housing rules, second-grade teacher Frank Cirillo struggles to find a place to live.

Cirillo, 34, said the Delray Beach apartment he shares with his girlfriend becomes a condominium later this year and they might not be able to afford to stay in Palm Beach County.

"We just can't afford anything," Cirillo said. "I don't want to move to Georgia."

Andy Reid can be reached at or 561-228-5504.