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Affordable housing dominates St. Pete budget hearing

Margie Manning

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The May 20 St. Petersburg budget open house was attended by Council Chair Charlie Gerdes, Council members Gina Driscoll and Darden Rice, and Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and three members of the St. Petersburg City Council affirmed their plans to fund affordable housing initiatives during an open house for the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The preliminary spending plan for fiscal year 2020, which starts Oct. 1, currently allocates $1.75 million for “housing that’s affordable” from the 1 percent Penny for Pinellas sales tax, Kriseman said. Over 15 years, the city plans to use $15 million from Penny for Pinellas funding for affordable housing.

“The commitment of this administration and this group of City Council members to affordable housing is unshakeable,” Charlie Gerdes, council chair, said at the Monday night open house.

Other key investments in the FY20 budget that were highlighted include:

  • 13 additional full-time police officers. FY20 is the first year of a three-year plan to increase the police department’s sworn personnel from 562 positions to 600.
  • Fire department equipment and 8 additional sworn personnel in Fire-EMS
  • $4.78 million for sustainability and resiliency initiatives
  • Funding for Vision 2050, Grow Smarter and arts grants
  • A salary increase for city employees
  • $500,000 for the city’s economic stability fund, which will bring the reserve fund to $3.5 million

The open house was the first chance the public has had to speak on the FY20 budget, and 10 of the 11 speakers took the opportunity to talk about affordable housing.

“Families who make less than $50,000 per year are desperately struggling to afford housing in St. Pete so we need to start spending that money to help these families,” said Kitty Rawson, who was representing Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST), a grassroots coalition of more than 40 religious congregations throughout Pinellas County.

“We understand that the land the city hoped to purchase in the Bear Creek neighborhood is no longer available. But this shouldn’t be an obstacle to using that $1.5 million of the Penny funds for affordable housing. There are many other areas, and there are many other properties where affordable housing can be built, where a zoning change wouldn’t be needed, and you should instruct your staff to come back to you in the next few months with a variety of other possible projects to fund in 2020.”

The city had planned to buy five acres owned by Grace Connection Church at 635 64th St. S., then lease the land to a developer who would build affordable and workforce housing units. The deal fell through after neighbors objected to the plan and the church agreed to sell the property to another congregation.

Kriseman said public support is needed to keep a repeat of that from occurring.

“We as a community have to step up and say this is a priority, this is what we want,” Kriseman said. “We have to deal with facts and reality and not perception, because perception is getting in the way of reality. When we have projects we are trying to move forward and we have an opportunity to create housing that’s affordable, we have to get past fear that it will increase crime, or it will be a meth house or whatever other excuses we hear in the community for why that shouldn’t go there … We’ll continue to get pushback and we need your voices to say no, this is important for this community.”

Gerdes called for the public to hold state lawmakers accountable for the Sadowski Fund, which is made up of money generated through documentary stamp taxes on every real estate transaction in the state and was designed to fund affordable housing. Instead, it’s turned into “a slush fund for Tallahassee,” Gerdes said. This year the state is spending $200 million from the fund for Hurricane Irma relief, $125 million for the state’s general operating budget, and $85 million for affordable housing, he said.

Public input is key, said Council member Darden Rice.

“It was just three or four years ago where people who came to some of the budget open houses started talking about the need for affordable housing and that was the beginning of driving these conversations,” Rice said. “Tonight I heard it loud and clear, this continued and sustained demand for action by the city on this very important issue.”

Some speakers also called for continued support for the “19 big ideas” that have been nominated for inclusion in the One Community Plan, a project funded by the city to help create a new approach to economic equity. A grocery co-op to provide healthy food access is among those ideas, and Council member Gina Driscoll said she is pushing for city funding to help it get started, either in the FY20 budget or through a grant.

“We have a food desert issue in south St. Petersburg and ideas that come from the community like a grocery co-op are the true solutions, the long-term solutions, not just a quick fix,” Driscoll said.

The open house was one step in the city’s budget process that started with planning in December 2018 and continues over the summer and into the early fall. Here’s a timeline of key events ahead.

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