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Last week, the first public budget open house for the 2023 fiscal year was held at City Hall. Dozens of residents attended, with many of them giving public comment to share how they want to see their tax dollars spent. The vast majority made themselves clear — housing should be the city’s number one priority.
But these were not calls for more carte blanche handouts to developers for so-called “affordable” and “workforce” housing, nor were these calls for deregulation and small, market-friendly policy tweaks to facilitate the construction of more luxury housing. People were demanding that the city invest in solutions which liberate housing from the private market and establish a city-owned public housing program.
While St. Pete’s burgeoning downtown continues to benefit the wealthy & the business class, many workers are neck deep in the rising tide falsely promised to lift all boats. The toll of the pandemic has collided with a large-scale private sector housing failure. While parasitic, faceless investors are snapping up houses at records levels here in the Sunshine City, thousands of housing units sit vacant for all or most of the year, and thousands more are being built solely for the affluent. Landlords have seized the opportunity, gouging tenants for rent at levels much greater than any increase in costs and taxes. Federal emergency rental funds are drying up. Increased wages have been wiped out by inflation.
Currently, “affordable” housing efforts are funded through a patchwork of city, state and federal government handouts to corporations and for-profit developers. Certain minimum standards are required, but they are almost never enforced and affordability requirements are usually time-limited, meaning taxpayer-subsidized units can see rents raised to market rate after a certain number of years have passed. These public-private partnerships are a great way for grandstanding politicians to pat themselves on the back and for their corporate political donors to increase profits on the public dime. If we are going to invest public funds into housing – and we should be investing a lot more – there must be permanent public benefit.
A city-owned & operated public housing enterprise isn’t just some far-out, utopian idea. It’s the only way we’ll ever guarantee housing for everybody here in our rapidly gentrifying city. A blueprint already exists. The city owns and operates a 76-unit apartment complex in Methodist Town, just north of the Edge District. The Jamestown Apartments cater to low to moderate income families with rents capped as not to exceed a certain amount of a household’s income. This is a city-owned enterprise, like our public golf courses, utilities and sanitation, which are largely self-funded through their own revenues.
Imagine if this were to be implemented on a large scale, but with residents of all income levels having the ability to live in publicly owned housing. Without unaccountable private-sector profiteers to hoard the excess, money could be reinvested into maintaining facilities at a much higher standard, unlike at facilities currently owned and managed by corner-cutting corporate slumlords. This isn’t the same model as the notorious federal public housing of the past, which was purposefully underfunded & designed to warehouse the poor. A city-owned enterprise open to all residents would ensure high standards and Democratic control through its extremely localized nature. Hundreds of great paying, city jobs would be created. Countless families and individuals would be lifted out of poverty, homelessness.
With a rapidly growing tax-base, a city-owned and operated public housing enterprise is just one of many different projects the city could implement to meet the needs of working people, yet our city government consistently refuses to significantly increase social spending, no matter how much data there is to back up the effectiveness of a policy, such as with tenant right to counsel.
It is no secret that spending on law enforcement dominates most municipal budgets nationwide, and many activists have honed their sights on these overflowing coffers to highlight misplaced priorities of politicians and their excuses for inaction. So just how much do the cops get here in St. Pete specifically?
Mayor Welch plans to increase the police budget next year to a record $130.6 million. If that happens, taxpayers will have spent over 1 billion dollars on the cops since 2015. In this fiscal year, the police ate up over 40% of the general fund budget, the highest percentage of any other city police department in Pinellas County other than Kenneth City PD.
Between 2015-2022, the St. Pete Police Department received 70 times more than city-funded veteran, homeless and social services and 22 times more funding than the Housing and Community Development Department. The department, which serves a population of around 260,000, had a budget this past year that was $27 million more than the operating budget of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), which provides public transit services to a population of around 1 million residents countywide. The 2022 St. Pete police budget was even $2 million higher than the combined 2022 budgets of the nine other city level police departments in Pinellas County, who together provide services for some 309,000 residents between their respective jurisdictions.
Still, some people may insist this is a small price to pay for safety and security. But does the St. Pete Police Department actually keep us safe?
St. Petersburg residents might be surprised to find out that the department is solving less than half the crimes it was 20 years ago, with nearly 4,000 crimes solved in the year 2000, compared to a little over 1,500 in 2021, which was a meager 19.2% rate of crimes solved. The department consistently points out the overall decrease in crime in the past several years, however there is zero evidence to suggest this has anything to do with increased police spending. Regardless, St. Pete’s crime rate continues to vastly exceed that of local, statewide & national averages. If you live in St. Pete, you’re more likely to be the victim of a crime than just about anywhere else in Pinellas County.
In addition to general budget funding, the police also managed to bite off an additional $1.5 million chunk of last year’s budget for capital improvements, which included funding for 12 take-home police cruisers, allowing officers to commute to their homes up to 50 miles outside of the city. This was more than the entire capital improvement allotment for complete streets projects, which include things like traffic calming and pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure. These permanent & proven ways of preventing traffic fatalities seem like a much more logical investment than in the police considering that despite a 42% increase in traffic citations in 2021 and more DUI arrests last year than in any of the previous five years, the city saw an increase in overall crashes, fatal crashes, hit & runs and pedestrian/bicycle fatalities.
The police will always make some people feel safe regardless of how compelling the dissenting narrative may be. Indeed, the failed “law and order” policy approach to public health & safety in absence of anything else may naturally lead people to take this position. However, public opinion is always subject to change, which is why this conversation needs to continue, and not be shut down by our elected officials simply because it’s perceived as politically risky to engage with.
Who comes to carry out evictions against seniors, working families with children and veterans? Who comes to enforce laws and ordinances that criminalize the very existence of the homeless? Who creates the conditions of violence by militarizing working class neighborhoods and dooming countless young Black men to a life of incarceration? Why aren’t our needs being met directly instead of in a reactive manner? How much more is this really costing us, not just fiscally, but on a human level?
Mayor Welch says defunding the police for housing and other social services is a flawed analogy and that the issue doesn’t need to be about either/or. But actions speak louder than words, and so far he’s presented nothing that deviates from the same, tired policy approaches which have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable in our community. Until that changes, working people are going to continue organizing and building power. Right now we’re just knocking at the door nicely. But if nobody is going to answer, we aren’t afraid to break it down.
William Kilgore is a representative of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union.