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A year after mortgage settlement, lawmakers unveil plan for $200 million in housing aid

Florida lawmakers announced plans Wednesday for more than $200 million in housing aid from a national mortgage settlement that has languished for nearly a year.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a tentative plan for the money, deciding to direct it toward housing aid for teachers, veterans, rural physicians, public defenders and others. The plan would also provide funding for legal services and additional court staff to help streamline Florida’s clogged up foreclosure system. People who have suffered from foreclosure or other housing troubles would benefit from additional funding for affordable housing.

Last year, Florida became the slowest state to make use of part of its funding in the settlement —which allowed lawmakers to decide how to direct $334 million in funds. The Legislature redirected $74 million for general purposes last year, while lawmakers and Attorney General Pam Bondi debated over who had the authority to spend the rest of the money. 

Bondi and the Legislature eventually agreed that lawmakers would appropriate the funds during the legislative session, meaning most of the funds would idle for several more months before being used. A separate part of the settlement, handled by banks, has already been processing homeowner aid. That program has helped thousands of struggling homeowners, though Florida's foreclosure rate remains the highest in the nation.

The Florida House began to discuss with a program for spending the cash on Wednesday, garnering bipartisan support despite concerns from some lawmakers.

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who is backing the bill, acknowledged that not everybody would be happy with how the money would be spent. 

“The needs are incredible and the number is a finite number,” he said. “And you do the best you can.”

Democrats agreed to support the bill, though they said they would have used some of the money in different ways.

Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, said more of the cash should have gone to helping people who had lost their homes.

“I too do wish that there was more of a focus on making sure that those foreclosed families would have received those dollars,” she said.

Bondi, who has fought to make sure that the money did not get siphoned away for non-housing purposes, said she was happy with the House’s decision.

"I appreciate the House's work on this legislation,” she said. “And I will continue to work with the Legislature on our shared goal of ensuring that the mortgage settlement funds are used to address Floridians' housing needs and to remedy the effects of the foreclosure crisis in our state."