What do you hear when elected leaders say that they are “fighting for Affordable Housing?” Do you hear true conviction and desire to help everyday people create a sustainable life in their city? Do you hear that they are looking for a place to house the poorest residents of our community – and, possibly, those who some wouldn’t want housed in their back yard?
Or do you hear a sound bite that doesn’t mean much, but gets a lot of press and makes them appear as though they are carrying the torch for the downtrodden when no one else is? If you say “I hear a little bit of all three,” then, in my opinion, you might be correct. Especially if you are listening to any one specific voice and not the collective of those coming together to work on issues such as this.
Let’s be clear. When we talk about Affordable Housing (AH) or Workforce Housing (WH), we’re talking about teachers, firefighters, police officers, other city employees, restaurant workers, transportation service workers, those who bag your groceries at the store, single parents, our senior community, those on fixed incomes and the part of our community that keeps the engine of our economy running every day. We are also talking about young professionals looking to create a life in our community and raise their families – much like my husband and I did when we first moved to St. Petersburg in 2003. At that time were able to buy our first piece of the American Dream for a very modest price, which felt like a lot to us at the time.
Let me assure you, that dream of becoming a property owner in this community would have likely not become a reality in today’s world, and for many it never will. That being said, many cannot even find rental properties adequate enough to house their families within their economic means. We have a real crisis on our hands, and the time to act is now!
I ran for office in 2017 as a real estate broker with no real political background, but more than a decade of experience in helping people looking to make St. Pete a place where they could truly live, work and play. More than not, anyone looking to purchase a home for less than $200,000 – particularly if they had school-age children and were obtaining a mortgage on a property – ended up buying outside of St Petersburg. Because of my fear that St Petersburg would become a place where only the wealthy could survive and thrive, I decided to run for office and attempt to make a difference. Since that time, your city council, along with city staff and numerous members of the community, have been working collectively on measures that will dramatically make a difference in this vital quality of life issue.
Those who are experts in the housing arena all agree on one thing when it comes to affordable and workforce housing (AH and WH) solutions: There is no magic bullet, and no “one size fits all.” We need a wide range of tools in the toolbox to even make a dent in this daunting issue. The fact is. there are numerous costs that accumulate and contribute to making housing and overall livability in a community unaffordable. Property taxes, the rising and uncertain cost of flood insurance in a coastal area, utility rates, the cost of transportation and lack of public options are among the items that are relatively out of a resident’s control. Increasing any of these factors in the name of funding AH efforts could be compared to increasing the cost of groceries while people are starving.
While funding is important, it’s not the only answer. By becoming a city that incentivizes affordable development, and by making the cost of building less expensive for those developers who are committed to increasing the rental and housing stock for low to moderate income earners, you can better partner with the private sector to accomplish the overall goal of having more affordable and workforce housing options available.
I’m happy to report that since the beginning of 2018, city staff and officials have worked very hard to clear out as many “low hanging fruit items” as possible to set us on a path for future success. We have implemented a new lot disposition program to release city-owned parcels to the community for single home development, allocated $15M from Penny for Pinellas funds to begin to go toward AH efforts starting in 2020, approved a study to evaluate the implementation of development fees that could be used exclusively for AH (results to be discussed later this year), eliminated the discriminatory practice of WH projects being required to go to public hearing – and numerous other minor items that will make a big difference over time.
That being said, we have so far to go. I am proud to sit as the chair of the city’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation committee this year. We have already moved forward several ideas that had been stalled for a while. We will be increasing the number of lots in the city that are eligible to have an accessory dwelling added to them. We will be reducing parking requirements for AH multi-unit developments, and will also be discussing a new missing middle zoning overlay that could allow for increased density in important corridors. Finally, we will be discussing funding options, the creation of a dedicated housing fund, and if that fund should be protected in the charter. If we collectively decide that this fund should be protected, that would then need to go to you, the voters, to decide.
Regardless of what happens and how we move these issues forward, I urge you to join me and my fellow council members in caring about this issue. This is something that will affect our city for generations to come. If you want your children and grandchildren to grow up in a diverse city with attainable options for safe and secure housing, we must continue this fight!
It will take all hands on deck. Not one individual person or entity will be the hero when it comes to creating vibrant communities for our residents. Not one idea is going to solve this crisis overnight. However, working together to come up with sensible solutions that have real effects, and not a greater burden on any one segment of our population, will get us closer.