Palm Beach newcomers need to review housing plan

The two new members of the Palm Beach County commission get their first chance to pitch their underdog status to the public.

Republicans Marcia Woodward in District 4 and Sara Baxter in District 6 had significantly less money than their Democratic opponents. Robert Weinroth received nearly $416,000 in campaign contributions, nine times what Woodward raised. Baxter had $120,000 to Michelle McGovern’s $416,000.

Woodward and Baxter were first-time prospects with relatively little name recognition. But they pulled off major upsets, aided by strong Republican turnout and Democratic apathy. The Sun Sentinel didn’t endorse Woodward or Baxter, but we agree with them on one very important issue: the $200 million Affordable Housing Bond that voters approved last week.

Woodward and Baxter opposed the bond issue, and they were right.

Everyone agrees that the county, like most in Florida, doesn’t have enough housing for the workforce. The pandemic migration to South Florida has turned a serious problem into a crisis.

County commissioners responded with a ballot question authorizing the county to issue up to $200 million in bonds to build some of the needed housing. That was it. Nothing in the wording of the ballot explained how the program would work or where the accommodations would go.

When we interviewed Weinroth, he acknowledged that the commissioners would decide how to spend the money. While he disagreed with our characterization of the program as a slush fund for privileged developers, he acknowledged that outsiders might see it that way.

Consider how the program came about.

As the Palm Beach Post reported, a consortium of builders designed the program. They rejected any ideas that might have meant taking money from the developers. Better to tax the public.

Then a committee called the Hometown Housing Trust launched a campaign to push through the bond program. The group’s advertisements claimed that unless voters approve, teachers and first responders could begin to leave the county.

Everything seemed very civic. But consider who was behind Hometown Housing Trust. The group has raised nearly $1 million, mostly from developers, land use lawyers and others whose livelihoods depend on the construction industry.

In late October, Hometown Housing Trust received $50,000 from a committee called The People Versus the Powerful. It’s not even in Florida. It’s in the San Francisco suburb of San Rafael and its sole contributor is short-term rental giant Airbnb. “Hometown?” Barely.

Many local development interests have contributed to aggravating the housing crisis. Example: GL Homes, which specializes in high-end housing, donated $25,000.

But GL was one of many companies that circumvented the requirements to include affordable units in their projects. They did this because Palm Beach County allows them to pay fees instead of building the units. The county closed that loophole, but the damage remains.

Baxter and Woodward will take place on Tuesday. One of their colleagues, Maria Marino, voted against putting the bond program on the ballot. The other dissenter, Melissa McKinlay, has a limited term (Baxter is her replacement).

Do the math: that’s three votes against the program of the seven-member commission. Baxter, Marino and Woodward must persuade another commissioner to have a skeptical majority.

In our view, the wording of the ballot only indicated that the commissioners could issue the bonds if they so wished. They don’t have to deliver them.

Here’s something else to consider for Baxter, Marino and Woodward. Local governments typically issue bonds for public projects such as schools and police stations. The bonds would fund construction on private property.

Is it legal?

There would likely be a strong reaction if the commission hesitated to launch the program or imposed strict standards. But if the commission’s new skeptics want to overthrow the establishment, now is their time.

The Post also reported that county officials supported this approach because the business sector would follow suit. These officials were likely concerned that industry opposition could derail the program.

Now, however, voters have approved a program that looks like a government subsidy for developers, just as rising interest rates drive down demand for market-priced housing. The new Palm Beach County Commission is expected to give this program the scrutiny it didn’t get before the election.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board is comprised of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Editorial Page Associate Editor Dan Sweeney, and Managing Editor Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board of Directors and written by one of its members or a designated person. To contact us, write to [email protected].

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