Fort Myers City Council denied permission to advertise Monday night for proposed amendments to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Proposed changes included increasing the rental assistance threshold to 120% of the area median income, prioritizing city employees for rental assistance and requiring prospective tenants to demonstrate employment within the city.
The proposed changes were first discussed at a Nov. 20 Council meeting, where Community Development Director Steve Belden provided updates on the fund. At that meeting, council member Liston Bochette asked how many of the applicants under consideration were city staff, police, fire and teachers. Belden said staff was looking into the breakdown of applicants, ensuring city employees would be prioritized.
Belden also said city staff found some applicants are not meeting the current income requirements for the rental assistance portion of the fund and suggested increasing the area median income to 120%.
Despite what was discussed at the Nov. 20 meeting, Belden said Monday night no city employees were applying for rental assistance at this time, aside from one employee who since relocated.
“We really don’t have any city employees at this time that are able to take advantage of the program the way it is right now,” Belden said. “Now, if you were to approve the other component of this and raise the limit to 120% AMI, that may capture some city employees.”
Belden suggested an increase also would allow the city to assist more residents.
“I think if we increase it to 120% AMI, it would be a benefit to a lot of individuals and families right now that are not able to take advantage of this program,” he said.
These proposed changes, along with requiring prospective tenants demonstrate employment within the city, caused members of Lee Interfaith for Empowerment, a church-based community-action partnership, to fill the Council chambers, all wearing red in opposition to the changes.
LIFE, a local organization comprised of 16 churches in Lee County, has been heavily involved with the fund since its inception. LIFE works to improve the lives of all citizens in the county, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged.
LIFE member Patricia Zimmerman said the organization carries out its mission by asking local and county governments to remove discriminatory and unfair practices and to initiate programs that are beneficial to those least able to fend for themselves.
In line with the organization’s mission, Zimmerman said increasing the AMI to 120% would include people who aren’t cost burdened.
“If city employees are meeting the qualifications, which means they’re making only 100% of AMI or below, we have no problems with those city employees being in line with everybody else, but they shouldn’t be prioritized,” Zimmerman said. “It’s the city looking out for their own employees at the expense of everyone else. It is really an injustice.”
Notably, the requirement that 65% of the funds go toward those at 80% AMI or below was proposed to remain the same despite any other proposed changes.
There has been a total of 736 applicants, of which 23 have been approved, 357 have been denied and 19 are pending applicant information. Additionally, 104 of the applicants are noted as completed and two have been withdrawn.
Out of the 23 approved, 20 applicants are at 80% AMI or below, with most of the approved applicants being single females with low or very low income.
Council member Terolyn Watson questioned the high denial rate, to which Belden said it was either applicants who were unable to provide proof of income or required information, along with some making more than the income threshold.
If any applicants are also receiving other assistance, the duplication of benefits would call for the denial of their application.
Considering the turnout of residents opposing the proposed changes, council member Teresa Watkins Brown recommended moving forward the proposed changes but requiring that 75% of the funds go toward those at 80% AMI or below.
Incoming LIFE Chair Rev. Rickey Anderson said that proposal is workable, however the motion to approve the permission to advertise the proposed changes with Brown’s proposal failed in a 3-3 vote.
If it moved forward, the public hearing on the item would have been set for Jan. 2, 2024. However, since the motion failed in a tie, permission to advertise is denied, but the item will be discussed at a City Council workshop Dec. 11.