By C.T. Bowen, Tampa Bay Times

In a party-line vote, the Hillsborough County Commission’s Republican majority picked asphalt over housing affordability in the upcoming county budget.

On a 4-3 vote Thursday night, the commission cut the $10 million appropriation to its affordable housing trust fund by 80% and reallocated the $8 million to road paving and sidewalk repairs. The debate comes amid an affordable housing crisis in Florida as residents face rising mortgage rates, skyrocketing rents and runaway property insurance premium hikes.

Commissioner Donna Cameron Cepeda did not speak during the public debate, but joined the majority in slicing the affordable housing fund four years after commissioners created it.

During her successful campaign for the commission in 2022, Cameron Cepeda lived in New Life Village, an affordable housing complex in the Palm River area. It focuses on families with foster children, but also sets aside apartments for low-income senior citizens who can act as mentors to the youngsters.

To qualify, seniors must not earn more than 80% of the average median income, currently $55,600 for two people. Cameron Cepeda reported an annual income of $27,915 in 2021 from her role with a church, Glory Ministries International, that she and her husband founded, according to 2022 campaign documents. Cameron Cepeda, 60, moved from the complex after her election to the commission job paying $105,239 annually. She and her husband now own a home in Riverview.

“The hypocrisy is astounding. She spent years benefiting from housing support, housing investment, affordable housing subsidies. Yet she chooses not to support further investments. It boggles my mind,” said former Commissioner Kimberly Overman, founder of a newly formed nonprofit agency, Housing Leadership Council of Tampa Bay.

In a statement emailed to the Tampa Bay Times, Cameron Cepeda pointed to the total affordable housing spending in the budget, which includes state and federal funds and dollars rolled over from the current budget.

“Hillsborough County has $139 million for affordable housing in the adopted FY 24 budget,” said Cameron Cepeda. “We are able to help many people who need help with housing. We are also working to improve public safety, roads, infrastructure and more to make Hillsborough County better.”

The commission’s vote followed two hours of public testimony from more than 40 people, all but six of whom asked commissioners to spare the affordable housing allocation. Many wore purple T-shirts with Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, across the front. The organization, a coalition of more than two dozen churches, successfully lobbied the commission to create the affordable housing trust fund in 2019. The commission named the fund the HOPE fund to honor their effort.

“We’re talking about a $9 billion budget with $10 million going for affordable housing, which is pennies,” said the Rev. Gabriel Morgan, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran and Faith Lutheran churches in Tampa. “… We need hundreds of millions for affordable housing and we should be debating increasing it, not decreasing it.”

A handful of speakers urged the commission to roll back spending and reduce the proposed $9 billion budget.

Commissioners, however, did neither. Commissioner Gwen Myers sought to approve the budget as presented, including the $10 million for affordable housing. Her motion did not get a second. Commissioner Pat Kemp wanted to double the allocation for affordable housing by tapping money earmarked for reserve accounts.

Commissioner Michael Owen initially proposed to sweep the affordable housing dollars into public safety and reallocate money for jail renovations to transportation and other infrastructure. He withdrew that plan when commission chairperson Ken Hagan suggested reducing the housing money to $2 million and plugging $8 million into road and sidewalk repairs. It passed 4-3.

The result is a new county budget that tops $9 billion with steady tax rates, but property owners likely will pay more in 2024 because of increased values. All property is assessed at a rate of just less than $5.74 per $1,000 of property value for jail operations, constitutional offices, human services, economic development and other programs. That amounts to a tax bill of $1,719 for a home assessed at $350,000 with a homestead exemption.

Businesses and residents in the unincorporated areas of the county, about two-thirds of the county population, also pay a rate of just less than $4.38 per $1,000 for services such as fire, law enforcement, parks and recreation and code enforcement. That generates a tax bill of $1,312 for the owner of a home assessed at $350,000.

Separately, the commission previously blessed increasing water rates and county assessments for trash pickup and drainage. The county fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

View the original story here.