A community conversation to address affordable housing in St. Petersburg drew several potential ideas to create more places where middle and low income city residents can live.
It also drew protestors who said the forum was primarily for investors who want to gentrify south St. Pete.
The Tuesday morning conference at the Sunshine Center was called as the city faces what many say is a crisis in affordable housing. A worker would have to work 2.6 full-time jobs at minimum wage or would have to earn $21.79 an hour afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Tampa-St. Pete metro area, according to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The crisis in not unique to the area but the solutions should be unique, said Brandi Gabbard, a St. Petersburg City Council member and a realtor. Gabbard convened the forum along with Rep. Ben Diamond and Sen. Darryl Rouson.
One of Gabbard’s goals was to bring together all groups working on the issue to share ideas, including representatives from the Florida Housing Coalition, the Pinellas Realtor Organization, the Urban League and the New Deal for St. Pete, among others.
Some of the conversation by the panel focused on the Sadowski Affordable Housing Fund, a state fund designed to provide a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing
The Florida legislature has a history of using the Sadowski Fund for purposes other than housing, Diamond said.
“One of the biggest concerns is that this [raiding the Sadowski Fund] is becoming normalized,” said Ben Toro-Spears, a St. Petersburg-based technical advisor for the Florida Housing Coalition. “It is seen as a piggy bank. We cannot let this be normalized.”
Diamond said there is growing consensus that more needs to be done on the state level to address housing issues, and he supported a measure that would make it legally impermissible to use the fund for other priorities.
The city of St. Petersburg is considering a plan to establish a local affordable housing trust fund, Gabbard said. If that happens, there should be strict restrictions on the use of that money, said Joe Farrell, director of governmental affairs for the Pinellas Realtor Organization.
“We have full faith in the current City Council and administration to fully fund whatever new tax or funding streams they would have for affordable housing in the future, just like we did with the legislators back in the late ’80s. What we don’t have faith in is people we don’t know. We don’t know who’s going to be in charge in 5, 10, 15 years from now,” Farrell said. “We would like to put in the charter something as simple as saying any funds that are raised for or appropriated for affordable housing issues must be spent on those issues.”
One source of funding could be a linkage fee charged on commercial and residential development to pay for the creation of affordable housing, Gabbard said. A study is underway to determine how much that could raise, said Scott Macdonald, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Blue Sky Communities, an affordable multifamily real estate development company.
“From where I sit the city needs to look at a somewhere between $3 million to $4 million a year to go into that fund. It remains to be seen, when the study comes back, how much we think the linkage fee may contribute to that, but it’s really important that everyone here realizes there’s no silver bullet to this,” said Macdonald, who also is chair of the newly formed St. Petersburg Housing Policy Group. “It will take a concerted effort on all fronts … and that local funding may need to come from an array of different sources.”
More than funding is needed, said Ken Rush, chief operating officer of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County. “The community has to understand the need for each and every one of us to have a decent place to live,” Rush said.
Former City Council member Karl Nurse, who now chairs the housing workgroup for the Grow Smarter initiative, backs zoning changes that would allow accessory dwelling units – so-called tiny houses – on residential lots, as well as permit more duplexes and triplexes in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.
More needs to be done about predatory developers who take advantage of low-income homeowners, said Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas County Urban League. He encouraged people who get offers to sell their homes on the cheap to stay where they are, create equity and pass that down to their children.
Another one of Gabbard’s goals for the event was to hear about what is, and is not, working.
What’s not working, according to the protestors, are existing city and state policies that have pushed the poor and working-class African-American community out of the city.
“The Gas Plant community was razed to the ground. 22nd Street South used to have a thriving economic hub that is gone now and most of the businesses we are seeing pop up are young white-owned businesses. That’s gentrification. If we want to have a genuinely progressive city, we in the white community must stand under the leadership of the black community and with the black working class. We must make the south side black again,” said Jamie Simpson, who is white and a member of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. He joined protestors outside the community forum.
There’s distrust rooted in historical practices and requests for “buy-in” to city policies, and that distrust that can derail the conversation if it’s not addressed, said Brother John Muhammad, lead organizer for the New Deal for St. Pete, and a panelist at the forum.
“We have to acknowledge the fact that people have ‘bought in; before and then got robbed of what they bought into,” Muhammad said.
The development around Tropicana Field is an example of broken promises to the community, Rouson said.
“When they built the dome, Jack Kemp, the HUD secretary, promised us the public housing called Laurel Park across the street from the dome would never be torn down, yet it’s now a parking lot for the Rays baseball games and that housing stock was never replaced,” Rouson said.
Another existing public housing complex, Jordan Park, “should never become Laurel Park,” Rouson said.
Muhammad and other speakers who addressed the panel also criticized the timing of the event – a Tuesday morning when it was difficult for people with daytime jobs and others directly impacted by the housing crisis to attend.
Gabbard ended the forum with a promise.
“Whether we agree or disagree to how we come to the solutions, the conversation is not over,” she said.