Last week, the St. Petersburg City Council spent nearly two hours debating solutions to the affordable housing crisis that could come in the form of a “lockbox” affordable housing trust fund.
The proposed fund, initially reported by the St. Pete Catalyst earlier this month, was requested by City Council as a local answer to the habitual sweeping of hundreds of millions of dollars from Florida’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The Sadowski fund was originally created with the express purpose of supporting affordable housing programs throughout the state, but the protection of the fund was never codified. As such, it has often been referred to as a “slush fund” for the state legislature by critics of its indiscriminate sweeping to cover general revenue budget items. In 2018 and 2019, under two different governors, $182 million and $125 million were taken for general revenue purposes, respectively.
City Council looks to ensure that such a problem could not befall a housing fund at the local level by protecting the allowed use of the funds through city code equipped with language that would only allow funds to be used for housing.
City staff proposed that the ordinance be protected by a provision that it could only be removed or amended by unanimous decision of the City Council and express permission of the mayor.
But for one council member, legislative action wasn’t guarantee enough. Rather, Brandi Gabbard is ready to ask voters to put the protection of the affordable housing trust fund into City Charter, through a referendum.
Gabbard, a first-term City Council member who is a real estate broker by trade, argued that regardless of the source of the trust’s funding or which income categories it is used for, she and many of her constituents believe it should be “protected in perpetuity.”
Gabbard pointed to the Sadowski fund as the impetus for her motion, arguing, “If we are students of history, we should know that it repeats itself. We can have good will and intentions but the only way to ensure that the funds are protected is to put it in charter and have the voters weigh in.”
The Council unanimously agreed to move Gabbard’s proposed referendum forward to a first reading on July 18 and a public hearing on August 1. The ballot measure could come to voters as soon as November 2019.
One thing the Council didn’t agree on, however, was who should be served by the funds in the lockbox.
Most of the two hour discussion centered around disagreements over whether or not funds from the new St. Petersburg Housing Trust Fund, which Council asked City staff to create in place of the housing capital improvement program (HCIP), should be spent on lower-income residents most in need, or include middle income or “workforce housing” programs like down payment assistance or housing repair and rehabilitation grants.
Traditionally, the City of St. Petersburg, like many other municipalities, has split affordable housing and workforce housing into categories based on percentages of the Area Median Income (AMI), ranging from very low income (not to exceed 50 percent of AMI or $33,450 for a family of four) to low, moderate and middle income (not to exceed 150 percent of AMI or $100,350 for a family of four).
Council members Steve Kornell and Amy Foster were the first to raise concerns over spending affordable housing funds on middle-income residents. Their concerns were echoed by Council Chair Charlie Gerdes, and Council member Lisa Wheeler Bowman, who eventually made a motion to remove the middle income category’s inclusion in the fund.
“The majority of our HUD dollars and federal investments really go to middle income people to help them buy homes,” said Foster. “That also continues to support the racial disparities that we see in home ownership. Somebody at 120 percent of AMI could afford to live in Fusion.
“I’m certainly more concerned about people on the lower end of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in workforce housing and we need that too, but I think there are federal investments and other investments that allow folks making almost $80,000 a year to afford homes and they can afford homes in lower categories. There’s nothing to assist these lower income categories.
“I share the concern that council member Kornell brought up,” she continued. “I don’t want to see the majority of this money going to build middle income housing. Oftentimes those are the easiest deals to get done, and the money will go very quickly. We’ve seen that even with other grant programs we’ve worked on.”
“In the 7.5 years that I’ve been on the dais, I’ve been accused of standing up for downtown interests, standing up for ad valorem increases, standing up for every decision I’ve made being a developer decision, standing up for gentrification, standing up for rich people,” said Gerdes. “Before I leave office, my goal is to be accused of standing up and supporting poor people. And this is where I’m making my stand right here.
“We have to concentrate on where the problem is,” he explained, “and where the problem is at is screaming at us – screaming.”
Gabbard spoke out strongly against the motion. “The eight of us have spent a year and a half talking about housing initiatives that we all were on board with being inclusive,” she said. “And inclusive has a very wide reach. That is everything from all five of these categories. We have five categories for a reason – because there is a problem that exists in all of them.
“This is supposed to be an inclusive housing fund that would address broad levels of need. I hate that this feels like it is pitting one group against another … But if I don’t stand up and make a case for the middle and moderate income levels, then we are going to lose out on addressing the large, broad issue that we have been talking about for a year and a half.”
Wheeler-Bowman’s motion to remove the middle income housing category from the housing ordinance passed 5-3, with Council members Darden Rice, Ed Montanari, and Gabbard opposed. The motion will move forward to Council for a first reading on July 18 and a public hearing on August 1.