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'Fair Housing' a Big Challenge for Manatee County

Jared Anderson Sr. and his family have been living in motels in Manatee County, Fla., on and off for the past five years because they can't find a place to live they can afford.

Anderson, an elder at the Comforter Church of Jesus Christ in Palmetto, works as a commercial fisherman and made more than $40,000 last year. He still can't find an affordable house for himself, his wife and children, who range in ages from 5 to 14. The Andersons are currently 138th on the list to get a Section 8 voucher in Manatee County.

Instead, they are paying more than $1,500 a month to live in motels.

"I never thought it would be this hard to get housing," the 47-year-old Manatee County native said. "I'm still trusting God that he is going to make a way for myself and my family to get us a house."

His wife, Felicia, added: "It's so hard to get help."

As a way to identify barriers to fair housing, county officials are developing an assessment of fair housing.

Fair housing means protecting "people from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and familial status," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While the county commission had a work session Tuesday on fair housing in Manatee, a draft of the plan won't be available until Oct. 29 for public review before it is approved by the board and sent to HUD in December.

"It's going to benefit the entire community," said Cheri Coryea, the county's neighborhood services director. "The plan will help us in being able to do things all throughout the area."

Unlike previous fair housing plans that the county developed in 2005 and 2010, Manatee County will be held more accountable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the plan for the county to receive Community Development Block Grant funding.

HUD has designated certain areas in Manatee County such as the areas around Samoset and Oneco in Bradenton as "racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty," but housing challenges are also found elsewhere, said Jason Smith, a consultant with civil engineering firm Wade Trim.

Fair housing survey

Nearly 36 percent of Manatee County residents who responded to a survey conducted as part of developing the fair housing plan say that housing discrimination is an issue in Manatee.

This summer, the county created a survey to get feedback from residents about the housing market and barriers that may exist. Of the 212 respondents, 38.9 percent said a housing provider has refused to rent or deal with certain individuals.

The need for additional code enforcement for rental units that are not safe to live in or don't meet local codes was among the top issues Smith said he heard during public outreach.

"The landlords would basically shrug their shoulders," Smith said. "They weren't sure how to address that. Landlord accountability was something that came up over and over again."

The limited number of affordable units in new developments, the unaffordability of the existing stock for lower-income residents, and being turned away from housing based on race and ethnicity were among some of the other survey results, according to Tuesday's presentation.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said the survey results solidified everything that they've heard and know.

"I truly believe it has addressed the issues that we need to address so far," she said. "The biggest issue is getting into those houses to see what's inside. ... We are going to make sure our citizens, no matter what color they are, what race they are, have a place to live. This survey hit it right on the head because they are afraid."

It is going to take working alongside the cities in the county, Commissioner John Chappie said.

"We are all in this together," he said. "It is not just a line. It is that cancer that is spreading in these areas because of the housing that is there. We have to work together to be successful and more efficient in the way our funds are going to be utilized."

Possible regulations of rentals

While the commission didn't take any action Tuesday since it was only a work session, there was discussion of looking into possible regulatory measures.

"We need to have a serious conversation in our community," Commissioner Betsy Benac said. "We haven't had one for a long time. We are going to have to figure out how we are going to make these changes."

Consideration of an ordinance to allow for inspections of the inside of rentals could be a start, Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said.

"I think it is a good idea," she said. "That's probably one of the first steps we need to take."

The county's Property Maintenance Code, which was adopted in April 2015, talks about such inspections if inspectors are invited inside, according to John Barnott, the county's building and development services director.

"To date, I don't know we've had that many invitations to come in," he said. "As we continue to look at regulation and more of it, I need more people. Right now, we don't have the money for more people."

A business license fee, such as those levied on Anna Maria Island, could help, Chappie said.

"I think a revenue stream needs to be developed," he said.

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