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City approves over 2,200 utility relief applications in weeks

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg officials screened over 1,400 Renter Utility Relief program applications last week. Photo by Mark Parker.

St. Petersburg’s recently launched Renter Utility Relief program is an immediate success that underscores an increasing need amid soaring costs.

Mayor Ken Welch, in partnership with Duke Energy and the Pinellas County Urban League, formally announced the initiative March 22. The city dedicated $3 million in pandemic-era federal Emergency Rental Assistance funding to help tenants struggling to keep running water and electricity.

The departments overseeing the program have worked overtime to manage an influx of applications. Carly Pannella, housing development coordinator, told city council members at a committee meeting Thursday that the initiative is already a “massive success.” 

“This is dire assistance – people literally cannot pay their bills,” Pannella said. “They are turned off.”

The city’s utility relief program officially began March 18 with no announcement. Residents noticed the website, and about 100 people applied March 21.

That number soared to over 500 following a March 22 morning press conference. Pannella said she now receives about 300 applications weekly.

The city’s approval rate is around 74%. Requirements are lax – the program is open to St. Petersburg residents with past-due utility bills and officials do not require lease agreements or financial information.

Rejections are split nearly evenly between non-residents and those without a past-due bill. Pannella noted that unincorporated areas such as Lealman, along with the City of Gulfport, receive St. Petersburg water.

She credited administrators for lending her “some girl power” from the Mayor’s Office to help process applications. Pannella said they screened over 1,400 applications last week

“So, that is just massive,” she added. “Billing and collections – they’ve put so much manpower on this and we’re really pushing through these funds. It’s super exciting.”

Carly Pannella (right), housing development coordinator, and housing development administrator Amy Foster. Screengrab.

The average award is about $600. Panella said the city has allocated about $500,000 of its $1.5 million share.

She noted that three zip codes – 33705, 33711 and 33712 – account for 70% of applications. Those are primarily within the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.

Pannella said that data “really concerned” Duke officials. “One of the very interesting things they found is that these zip codes are not the highest … that call in for assistance,” she explained.

Pannella said residents living between the Gandy and Howard Frankland Bridges have called with past-due electric bill issues more than any other area, but are not applying to the relief program at the same rate. Amy Foster, city housing administrator, said people experiencing generational poverty often “wait until the very last minute” to seek help.

“We talk about this with eviction diversion,” Foster elaborated. “People who have different experiences … who are maybe under-resourced financially but resourced in their networks – they know to call and set up a payment plan. Whereas other people wait … until the lights get turned off to ask for assistance.”

The number of people applying for electric assistance more than doubles those seeking help with past-due utility bills. In addition, program officials rejected five times as many applicants for not residing in St. Petersburg.

Pannella said she has received applications from Tampa, Ruskin and Bradenton. “So, the word is really getting out,” she added.

The program, she said, covered a $15,000 water balance for a tenant whose landlord failed to address a leak for six months. Council Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders asked how the city could help mitigate those issues.

Foster noted that state preemption prevents local officials from interfering in a landlord-tenant relationship. Assistant city attorney Michael Dema said code enforcement could help identify “bad actors,” and he could “look to see if there’s any room on the margins to do anything.”

Panella explained that city officials can restore service electronically immediately after an applicant receives approval. She prioritizes those who were disconnected for non-payment.

Foster said she ensures the city’s housing and social services team realizes that “we all got to sleep in a bed last night, and lots of people didn’t. So, there is an urgency of ‘now’ to our work.”

She said Pannella, a new employee, understood that philosophy and “takes this very personally for our residents. I just can’t say thank you enough, because this shows the real need for utility assistance in our community.”

To apply for the Renter Utility Relief program, visit the website here.

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike

    April 13, 2024at5:55 am

    I need food, shelter, clothing, bills paid and you should pay for it. I’m going to be rewarded for my anti social behavior by socially destructive policies that will make fools out of all of you. I flatly refuse to accept personal responsibility for myself or my community. I flatly reject the rules. Pay my bills! Buy me housing! I’m going to smoke heroin in the park and you will worship me!

  2. Avatar

    Steve Sullivan

    April 12, 2024at6:31 pm

    James the city is coordinating with Duke and it’s own utility department to set eligibility guidelines. You must have a past due bill. I am pretty sure you saw that if you read the article.

  3. Avatar

    JAMES R. GILLESPIE

    April 12, 2024at3:27 pm

    good city program and use of federal funds. just be sure those applying have some real need so funds stretch for all in need.

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