The affordable housing crisis affects everyone in the city, noted St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president Chris Steinocher, and adopting solutions is imperative to maintaining livelihoods.
The chamber brought various stakeholders together Tuesday night for a community discussion at St. Petersburg College’s Midtown Center, “Housing Solutions For All.” The meeting’s goal was to holistically examine affordable housing issues through presentations from city and industry officials, followed by a question and answer session.
At the onset, Steinocher expressed his desire to help solve the problem for his current and future employees. While he strives to provide wages commensurate with soaring rents, he said the ultimate goal is to help build wealth through homeownership.
In addition to St. Petersburg-based companies needing affordable workforce housing, Dr. Eric Carver, provost of SPC’s Downtown and Midtown Centers, said his students “don’t do well if they’re sleeping in their cars.”
While the college focuses on getting the city’s young adults into well-paying jobs, he said that is only one aspect of ensuring they are not forced into moving or homelessness.
“So, we desperately need your help,” added Carver. “We need all the advocates that we can get to be able to support this community.”
Liz Abernethy, director of planning and development services for the city, relayed how her team hopes to mitigate the crisis through zoning changes. She said planning began under Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration in 2019, although the pandemic and bureaucratic hurdles have slowed implementation.
The latest initiative, explained Abernethy, is increasing density limitations on 3,000 parcels around major thoroughfares. City officials will conduct public hearings in the coming months, and she said the goal is to conclude the process in March 2023.
She relayed that the city council recently approved allowing accessory dwelling units in suburban and traditionally zoned neighborhoods. Over 70% of city lots, said Abernethy, now qualify for the additional housing opportunities, and officials are discussing ideas on incentivizing homeowners to utilize the new regulations.
While implementing zoning changes is a time-consuming process, Abernethy noted discussions on increasing density allowances around SunRunner – Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit service – stations continue moving forward.
“We also have a commercial corridor package that we’re looking at,” she said. “Should we make changes along our corridors like 34th Street to allow some of the old shopping centers to be redeveloped for apartments or housing units? We’re looking at some changes that would also incorporate additional incentives for workforce or affordable housing as part of that initiative.”
Jay Miller, president of J Square Developers, concluded the comprehensive discussion by sharing recommended solutions compiled at the chamber’s Housing Retreat event in October. His first suggestion was increasing density around public transit corridors, like the SunRunner route, so every person in a household doesn’t require a car for work.
He said city officials have discussed the initiative for three years and should “just move it forward and pass it already.” Miller encouraged the city administration to hire more staff if that is what it takes to speed up the process.
“It’s been long enough,” he added. “That’s the first idea, very easy to understand.”
Miller also proposed proactively expediting zoning changes ahead of future transit plans. He believes that would mitigate the five to 10-year wait to improve the next corridor, using 34th Street and Tyrone Boulevard as examples.
Another potential solution, which Miller said is a favorite of Steinocher’s, is providing adequate ferry service between Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg. Miller noted housing is much more affordable in places like Ruskin and Apollo Beach.
Although it might require state legislation, Miller also suggested adopting a mechanism to quickly transform properties zoned as commercial or institutional into affordable housing. State housing officials awarded St. Petersburg earlier this year for becoming the first municipality to utilize House Bill 1339, passed by the Florida Legislature in 2020.
The bill allows a governing body to expedite developments that meet the state’s definition of affordable. Miller noted that utilizing a similar procedure for institutionally zoned land would allow places of worship, which often own large properties and struggle financially, to convert some or all unused space into affordable housing.
“Churches, schools, hospitals – anywhere that’s got large parcels should all be able to build affordable housing right now,” said Steinocher.
After collaboratively discussing suggestions and ideas with community stakeholders, Steinocher said he would present recommendations to local and state politicians.