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Officials Scurry to Enact Housing Program by Deadline

On paper it’s so simple. Buy your first home and get an $8,000 tax credit from Uncle Sam. Can’t afford the down payment? The State of Florida will loan it to you. But you must act quickly. The deal ends December 1.

That, in a nutshell, is the crux of a $30 million state-backed program to help first-time homebuyers purchase their piece of the American Dream.

But local officials charged with overseeing the federally-backed effort peppered state officials with questions on Tuesday as they gear up to begin offering the program in less than three weeks.

State lawmakers earlier this year set aside $30 million to help qualified buyers tap into the tax credit program without having to come up with the down payment on their own. Homeowners would, in turn, repay the state after receiving the federal tax credit.

Some local housing officials say they may not be ready to open their doors Aug. 1 as they deal with questions about eligibility, repayment and whether the state will get caught holding the bag for the Florida Home Buyer Opportunity Program, or FHOP.

Representatives from the Florida Housing Finance Corp., acknowledged Tuesday that some communities are more ready than others to help lead prospective buyers through the process.

“The approval process varies quite a bit. For many it will be possible to do this,” said Rob Dearduff special programs administrator and local government liaison. “For others it will be more difficult.”

The federal program allows buyers with adjusted gross incomes below $75,000 who have not owned a home in three years to take up to $8,000 in federal tax credits. Homebuyers can amend their 2008 federal tax returns to do so. For those who can’t afford the down payment, the state program kicks in.

Marla Martin, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Realtors, said members are concerned that local housing programs won’t be ready when prospective buyers start calling in. Questions raised on Tuesday did little to ease those fears.

“Even with the money available Aug. 1, is it going to be possible to start?” Martin asked. “It sounds like there are a lot of details to be worked out.”

Despite expected glitches, housing advocates say Florida may be in better shape then most other states because it already has a system in place to provide financial assistance and advice to prospective buyers.

Duval County officials, for example, have already begun rolling out their program in anticipation of funds being available Aug. 1. Others are waiting to see if the state collects enough tax revenue to pay for the program before they raise hopes too high.

“Some are really on top of this and are ready to go,” said Stan Fitterman, a member of the Florida Housing Coalition. “Others are very leery to start until the check is in the bank.”

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