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Catalyze 2021: Mike Sutton

Margie Manning

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We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2021, and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live in what will surely be a changed – and charged – post-Covid world. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2021.

Public-private partnerships are key to creating affordable housing in St. Petersburg in 2021, said Mike Sutton, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity for Pinellas and West Pasco Counties.

Sutton said St. Petersburg has become a place where people want to live, but low and moderate-income families are priced out of the community.

“We see the working poor, people in food service or hospitality or even people who work for the school system, have to move outside the city limits to afford a place to live. In some cases they may be going across the bridge down to Manatee County. In some cases, they are moving north to Pasco County. I think for St. Pete to continue to be a thriving city and a place that has something to offer to everyone, affordable housing has to continue to be a focus area for the city and for our community.

“If families don’t have an affordable place to live, they may move their family, but at some point they are going to change jobs and leave the community altogether.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, the City Council and the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners have all said that affordable housing is a priority and also a challenge.

In an ideal situation, it’s a public-private partnership, said Sutton. “You have to have the  city involved. You have to have an administration that’s open to and promoting affordable and workforce housing. You have to have a business community that financially supports it as well. And then you have to have  the expertise of organizations like a Habitat or so many other organizations that have an affordable housing background.”

Affordable housing has to include both single-family and multi-family development, and be available for both home owners as well as renters, he said.

While local government should drive the initiative, the city or county can’t do it alone.

“The municipality has to say, we have to address affordable housing. We’re going to put all the people around the table with the expertise and knowledge to do this. And then they have to empower those organizations to do the work and step back and get out of the way,” Sutton said.

Municipalities can help with cutting red tape and bureaucracy, including improving the permitting and zoning process, he said. “The more barriers we can move out of the way, the quicker we can get people into an affordable housing situation.”

It’s also important, he said, to address misconceptions about affordable housing.

“I think we can all do a better job of educating the community about affordability housing and what it brings to the table, especially home ownership. In the case with Habitat, when we build homes in the community, we’re raising property values. The homeowner is buying an asset and they are contributing to the tax base. They’re setting roots for their family for generations. They’re improving neighborhoods.

“Sometimes there’s a stigma that affordable housing brings crime and drugs. So I think that education component is big,” Sutton said.

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