It’s Time For Randy Benderson To Fulfill Promise To Provide Affordable Workforce Housing In Sarasota
By Jon Susce
In 2007, Randy Benderson commited to a New Urbanist, pedestrian-focused design, centered around his 306 million dollar University Town Center Mall. The 2007 agreement that Sarasota County made with Benderson required Benderson to have constructed the first 110 affordably priced homes by the time he had finished construction on the first 350,000 square feet of the University Town Center.
To win approval for the project, Benderson agreed to price 25% of his homes at a cost affordable to an average wage earner. The original plans also called for at least 750 homes and as many as 1,750, south of the mall. One quarter of those, or 437, were to be affordable.
Four years later, Benderson’s Todd Mathes told the Sarasota County Planning Board that times have changed since then. Benderson’s plans now were for the New Urbanist concept to be replaced by a “plan that will become more traditional in design.”
According to a Sarasota Herald Tribune (SHT) article on June 20, 2011, Randy Benderson stated that there is no longer a need foraffordable workforce housing and that the 2007 requirement he has with Sarasota County hinders his mall plans.
Benderson officials argue that times have changed since their 2007 agreement. Benderson’s logic is that in 2007, people with average incomes couldn’t afford to buy a house in Sarasota County, but now they can. Plus, with all the empty homes on the market, building affordable workforce homes is simply a business that doesn’t
Building Affordable Workforce Housing A “Drag”
Contrary to what Benderson believed about the housing requirement in 2007, which at the time was sold as a plus to building the mall (since mall workers could basically afford to live on the site) it has now become a “drag.” It was Benderson’s contention that the county’s requirement to build homes that might not sell, will raise questions with prospective tenants about the viability of the mall project.
Sarasota Planning Commission Votes
7-0 Against Benderson Proposal
The Sarasota County Planning Commission disagreed with Benderson’s assessment six years ago and voted 7-0 against waiving the community workforce housing requirement for Benderson’s project. They were unwilling to waive the promise or predict that affordable housing would not become a local issue again in the coming years.
The planning board also disagreed with Benderson’s argument that the original concept of building workforce housing, which would have mall workers living on the site, had become a “drag.”
In addition, the planning board gave little credit to Benderson’s argument that, “the housing component requirement to build 437 community housing units will raise questions with prospective tenants about the viability of the mall project.” Planning board commissioners said their task was to plan for the long-term needs of the county and that they were unwilling to predict that affordable housing, a dominant political issue just five years ago, will not again become an issue in Southwest Florida.
“We’re supposed to be doing long-range planning for the county,” Planning commission member, John Fellin said, “I strongly suspect that no one here or no one within earshot five years ago could have predicted what happened in the last two years.”
Planning commission member, Roland Piccone stated, “If the county abandons the planning it did regarding affordable housing, it would be, in effect, adopting a different strategy for the next time homes become unaffordable: Let’s just wait for the next collapse.”
Benderson Seeks County Commission
To Exclude Workforce Housing
Not deterred by 7-0 vote of the Sarasota Planning Commission, Benderson took his plan to exclude affordable workforce housing from his University Town Center project to the Sarasota County Commission. Benderson once again argued for his new traditional” plan to replace the New Urbanist plan he had agreed upon in 2007, which would
exclude affordable workforce housing.
Ed Vogler, who is a Benderson spokesperson, came before the Sarasota County Commission and presented Benderson’s objections to his previous agreement. Vogler stated, “there is no longer a need for such housing and that the requirement to build these homes could hinder Benderson’s mall plans.”
Vogler told the county commissioners, “Benderson has been hampered in his talks with upscale department stores for his mall, due to the affordable-housing requirement with Sarasota County. Department stores want certainty in their agreements, and for Benderson to build workforce homes makes them nervous.” Volger said, “This is about bringing department stores in the near term.”
Sarasota County Commission Votes
5-0 To Approve Benderson Proposal
According to an SHT article, “Vogler’s references to its advanced talks with elite department store chains for its proposed University Town Center (UTC) mall swayed Sarasota County commissioners to vote 5-0. The approval would lift what Benderson said was a ‘negotiation-chilling’ requirement to make affordable priced homes a part of its project.” The county commission vote eliminated the requirement to build homes first. Benderson could now build the mall before it builds any homes.
Vogler did not mention that Benderson was being pressured to get an agreement to move forward by his partners in UTC, Taubman Center officials, whose job was to bring in tenants for the mall. Taubman had given Hugh Culverhouse Jr. a $500,000 retainer to have the exclusive right to negotiate with him for a mall on Culverhouse property in Osprey. Taubman was using his negotiation with Culverhouse to have Benderson lobby Sarasota County officials to ease restrictions on the mall. Taubman did not want affordable, workforce housing surrounding their $306 million UTC Mall anchored by five star restaurants and retail stores. (Taubman Centers is an owner of regional malls in the United States, and has headquarters in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The Taubman Asia subsidiary is headquartered in Hong Kong. It has the highest selling
portfolio of malls in any mall company in the United States.)
In describing the difference between the Sarasota County Planning Board vote of 7-0 against Benderson’s proposal not to build affordable housing, and the Sarasota County Commission vote of 5-0 in favor of Benderson’s new “traditional” plan,
Lobeck stated, “the only difference is planning commissioners don’t get campaign contributions.”
The county commissioners decision to eliminate Benderson’s commitment to build homes, allowed Benderson to renege on his promise to build the promised affordable work force housing. As SHT reported recently,
“the decision incensed housing advocates, who saw such development agreements as a way to provide cheaper housing without a big outlay of government funds.”
$Millions Of Public Money For Benderson Projects
In addition to releasing Benderson from his commitment to build work force housing as part of his project, the county commissioners have appropriated $millions of public money to increase Benderson’s profit margin at his various projects.
For example, $20 million for construction of the Benderson rowing facility, and $19 million for the Cattlemen Extension, that Benderson stated was needed to build his mall. In addition $20 million in public funds from the State of Florida. $Millions more will be appropriated for infrastructure needed to alleviate the sprawl created by Benderson projects, in addition to further costs to complete Benederson’s rowing facility.
With all of these millions of dollars in public money used to increase Benderson’s profit margin, not one penny has been appropriated by the Sarasota County
Commissioners or Randy Benderson for affordable workforce housing.
Sarasota County Benderson Decision
Has Caused Serious Problems
The decision by the Sarasota County Commission in 2007 to appropriate $millions of public funding for Benderson projects, while allowing Benderson to renege on his affordable workforce housing commitment, has contributed to the serious problem working folks have in Sarasota finding housing.
Officials at Sarasota’s Salvation Army,for instance, say they have families who have been in a shelter, received assistance and are ready for transitional housing. But, says Major Ethan Frizzell, the Salvation Army’s area commander, those families are unable to move out of the shelter due to the lack of affordable workforce housing.
Today, 56 percent of Sarasota County residents are “rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. A new report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that Florida leads the nation in the percentage of renters who are paying beyond what they can afford for housing. Household income in Florida is low and rental rates are high compared with what workers earn.
The supply of affordable workforce apartments has not kept up with demand in an area where many people work service-industry jobs for low wages. According to the SHT, Sarasota County residents are also extremely rent-burdened,
with 56.2 percent paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. “Housing is very expensive, either to build it or keep it affordable,” said Bill Russell, who is the director of Sarasota’s public housing authority. “It’s tough,” said Russell.
$Millions Of Public Money For Benderson Projects
In addition to releasing Benderson from his commitment to build affordable work force housing at his project in 2007, the county commissioners continued to
appropriate $millions of public money to increase Benderson’s profit margin at his various projects and approve more commercial expansion centered around the
Benderson/Taubman $310 million UTC Mall—–But Not One Penny For Affordable Workforce Housing.
Affordable Workforce Housing
Built By Benderson Uunlikely Unless Pressured
With the property values rising around the various upscale Benderson University Town Center project, the possibility of getting Benderson to agree to build affordable
workforce housing, as once promised is highly unlikely, unless public pressure is placed on Benderson to fulfill his previous commitment.
A commitment that former Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton expected to be fulfilled when he made it clear in 2007 that housing needs to be included in Benderson’s new plans. When Thaxton voted to allow Benderson to remove workforce housing from his project, he stated “I expect to see residences in the very first development phase. If it’s not there then we have a very serious problem.”
Sarasota County officials need to insist that Benderson follow the example of another multi-millionaire Harvey Vengroff, who is proposing to build affordable workforce housing in the City of Sarasota for working families without asking one penny in pubic assistance. Sarasota county officials, who have approved numerous Benderson projects that necessitated $millions in public funding for infrastructure costs, in addition to the appropriated $millions of public expenditures for Benderson projects, should require Benderson follow the example of Vengroff who recently made this public statement: “We are not asking the city to change the building codes, compromise safety or security. We are asking for a permit to build 400 apartments on an 8 acre parcel. We have always used our own money to provide affordable housing for our own employees and the community. We plan to build a mix of studios, one bedroom, two bedroom and three bedroom apartments ranging in rents from $600-$850/month.” Vengroff continued, “Try to look at the project for what it is: A privately financed enterprise that pays taxes and accepts no subsidies. Our employees work long hours trying to help tenants find employment, make doctors’ visits, maintain a safe clean environment and try to treat everyone with respect.”
According to Thaxton’s statement in 2010, it’s now the time for the Sarasota County Commission to inform Benderson that there is a “serious problem.” Sarasota County Commissioners need to “bite the bullet.”— Not one penny of public funding goes to any of his projects, until Benderson fulfills his commitment to build affordable workforce housing.