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Community Voices: Reflections on the housing crisis

Aaron Dietrich



Downtown St. Petersburg
Downtown St. Pete. File photo.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

I have lived in the Sunshine City for more than 20 years. In 2012, I began my career as a community organizer for the St. Petersburg city employees’ union (SEIU-Florida Public Services Union) during the economic fallout of the great recession. In those days we were organizing against people losing their homes, but it was because wealth was rapidly leaving our city, not flowing into it. 

Everywhere in the country the message was dominated by conservative voices demanding cuts to government services. At that time we organized residents directly to reject austerity policies and service cuts under the banner of the People’s Budget Review. We won. For the first time in more than 50 years we raised property taxes to ensure St Petersburg received the necessary investment to prosper as a city then and into the future. There were no cuts to services or layoffs for city employees. 

It turns out the people were remarkably prudent, and making the difficult decision then to raise taxes set us on a trajectory that in no small way has led to the affluence some are experiencing more than others today. For me, the affordable housing crisis we are experiencing now is a painful bookend that began with the foreclosure crisis of the great recession and it’s tragic that in St Petersburg so little of the public resources that residents demanded then for their community is being used now to provide relief in this unprecedented crisis.

As many of us have experienced the startling act of walking or driving through our city and seeing the new development and changing landscape I am often struck with a strange feeling. I must admit a visceral response when I see the new buildings and condos shooting into the sky. But why is this? I have no reason to oppose new buildings, or development, in and of themselves. To be honest I often find myself fantasizing about what my life would look like if I were able to afford the latest luxury accommodation – then it hits me. This is the response to gentrification, the actual feeling it creates. This is the perverse sense of seeing your community develop in front of you, but without you.

That is what is happening now and it is not just an issue of supply and demand. It is a much deeper and more complicated issue of the human variety, and the sooner we acknowledge this the sooner we will find solutions. We are dealing with gentrification. We are dealing with the return of wealth and whiteness to a city it once fled, but now returns to stake its claim. We will have to deal with the issues of race and class in this housing crisis because we cannot understand supply and demand if we do not acknowledge the power imbalance that favors those who own and control access to that supply. Consider the fact that corporate investor purchases have increased 530 percent since 2011 in St Petersburg.

So what do we do? It seems to me we are at a difficult point where the city will have to become something quite different in the area of housing if it is to remain as we understand it – a St. Petersburg that could hopefully one day shine on all of us. Segregating our community based on income is no less unjust than segregation based on skin color. That is to say, just because the market is doing it, does not alleviate our responsibility to intervene and save our city from what we all see is happening: the displacement of working families and whole communities who can longer afford to live in the city they have called home for generations. This is displacement and people are becoming literal refugees in this crisis.

How we deal with this foreseen emergency will no doubt determine the future of St. Petersburg and who calls it home. I believe the people here now really do believe in making a city for all, regardless of race or income we can see common ground in each other. I have built my career as an organizer on this belief and I struggle to see why we can’t have development in St. Petersburg that builds on the same idea, while rejecting the continued displacement of people and communities we love.  

As I have organized for the past year with the People’s Council I have seen, to put it simply, the single biggest movement of everyday residents from all walks of life willing to come together to find pragmatic solutions in this housing crisis, to help each other and find out what they can do to help. I have referred to it as a “100 foot wave” to my colleagues, and have not found anyone in the city who hasn’t been impacted or knows someone who hasn’t been.

As an organizer I have also found myself caught up in this crisis when I lost my housing in early April of this year. I have gone from riding that “100 foot wave” of community organizing to couch surfing with friends. Right now I don’t know what the future holds, and I can tell you personally how difficult it is to build any kind of foundation for yourself or your loved ones without housing. 

How we could ever build a lasting and healthy community without that most basic of human securities I do not know. The question now is what can we do about it. As I reflect on this city and where it has been and where it will go, I wanted to offer some reflections based on what I have learned both personally and professionally doing this work in St. Petersburg during an extraordinary moment of change.

We have to deal with housing as a social issue, not just an economic one. That means acknowledging the implications of this crisis on the areas of race and class. What we are trying to achieve is a city where all can have housing and the security that comes with it. The residents I have worked with have no fundamental problem with the wealthy moving into their city, they just don’t understand why that has to mean they are forced to leave as a result. They believe we should have a city where the people who come here understand they can add to the fabric of our community but not take away from it.

To solve this crisis we will need a vision for our community where we acknowledge the right to the city for all people, regardless of race and income. Why do we not have new buildings reaching into the sky for working class residents, next to the affluent? Is this really impossible or has the market just forgotten about anything less than luxury housing? It may sound extreme to begin providing housing to residents as a public utility rather than an investment opportunity, but when I talk to people in St. Petersburg that is exactly what they want to see and they want to see it now.

The residents I talk to can’t understand how such a fundamental aspect of their lives as housing could become out of reach for so many of us and how it could happen so quickly. What seems clear to me is that the solutions needed are far bigger in scale and scope than our elected officials and business leaders are currently prepared to undertake. Regardless, this problem isn’t going anywhere and those that fail to acknowledge it will only add to the pain that residents are experiencing now, and forecast their own displacement when they eventually find their own constituencies, customers and workforce nonexistent.

Consider the not too distant past when cities across America had no sanitation or sewage services of any kind. In Chicago in 1855 – where my family is from – the historic act of providing this now commonplace right of access to clean water required no less than literally elevating every single building in the city several feet with jack screws. This revolutionary and monumental task was done to ensure the very survival of the city and the ingenuity it required is now taken for granted in developed cities across the world. Now we find ourselves at no less a critical moment in time where we have ensured access to the basic services that go into our homes but not the right to access the home itself. Is the solution becoming obvious?

Why do we provide essential public services like sanitation and water to support our communities but leave the most fundamental area of housing almost exclusively to the private market? If we are ever going to provide permanently affordable housing to our residents it should be clear that there will need to be a public option that can respond to the needs of our community and not just the opportunity it presents to make profits. 

This means city-owned, social housing, accessible to all residents regardless of income. The goal is that everyone contributes their part to a shared vision of housing for all in St. Petersburg. Residents with higher incomes should be able to access this city owned housing on a sliding scale so that those who make more, pay more. This actually creates a system where we are providing incentives for people to live together, rich and poor, Black and white. 

Instead of more affluent families displacing existing residents by raising prices, social housing requires all to contribute their share to the cost of ensuring permanently affordable housing for the community. This is not traditional public housing and it offers us a visionary glimpse of what the future of housing could look like if we accept the challenge of dealing with it as a social issue once and for all.

Just like Chicago in the 1850s, we may need to do something unprecedented that changes how cities look for future generations across the country and beyond. We may need to lift an entire city into a new era, this time to guarantee residents access to the most basic of securities, access to affordable housing. 

The city began its 10-year housing plan in 2020 to address the ongoing lack of affordable housing for residents in St Petersburg. It currently seeks to “create and preserve” 2,400 affordable units over the 10-year span, when estimates I hear from housing experts and business leaders suggest no less than 10,000 new affordable units would be needed to adequately respond to the unprecedented demand for housing in our city. 

We have a serious housing problem in St. Petersburg and the first step to addressing it is to admit we have one. That means declaring a housing state of emergency and acknowledging the real, unmet need for affordable units rather than highlighting numbers that provide no meaningful context to residents about the scale and scope of this crisis. We need a plan that seeks to guarantee housing for all through social housing and other public options that provide permanent affordability. At the end of the day, our 10-year housing plan must seek to eliminate housing insecurity, not achieve some arbitrary metric that doesn’t address the underlying problem.

How would we pay for something like this? Thankfully the residents of St Petersburg had the foresight in 2012 and subsequent years to demand investment in this city even when their elected leaders suggested they do otherwise, and we do have ample resources in our city budget to make real investments that can begin to provide housing to our residents just as we do water and sanitation services. Of the $700 million budget, St Petersburg currently allocates less than 1% to the area of housing. This must change.

In the meantime, we need emergency action to stop the displacement. Residents must be given the ability to vote on emergency rent control for a period of one year. This is their right under the law and if our elected leaders would acknowledge the crisis and support a housing state of emergency we would be one step closer to providing much needed relief. Residents are fully aware of the possibility of lawsuits and retaliation from wealthy interest groups but that should not supersede their democratic right to vote on emergency rent control. We also need rapid emergency shelter for residents who are being displaced now. If this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one, we would have provided emergency shelter to residents long ago. 

Through crisis comes opportunity and that has never been more true than right now in St. Petersburg. Through this crisis I have seen a community emerge and a unique moment of possibility appear for us to redefine our city and how we relate to each other through the issue of housing. No matter how removed our experiences may be from one another, I have found nothing in my career as an organizer that has the potential to bring people together than this most basic and practical of human needs, to sleep under a roof and to feel safe at the end of the day.

We can use that common goal and purpose right now to do amazing things that could make our city and this world a better, more secure place for those who will come after us. Or, it could just be a brief glimpse of what could have been before something quite special slips away from a city and the people who called it home.

I think we will know if there is any future for working people in St. Petersburg very soon. Business as usual for the next few months will certainly mean the end of the road for me in the Sunshine City.

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    Karen Kirkpatrick

    May 18, 2022at10:05 pm

    My heart goes out to Mr. Dietrich. I have also lived here for decades. We all know who you are Mr. Dietrich and we commend and salute you. One thing I will disagree with you on and that is this housing crisis did not happen quickly; it has been at least five years in the making. I am a Google street photographer and what a jewel of a city as St. Petersburg is to take photos of in this walkable city. I noticed the construction fencing going up as buildings were coming down soon after Ric Kriseman became mayor. And the only thing being built in place were luxury condos & apartments. I then discovered it was his St. Petersburg City Council signing off on hundreds of building permits for the real estate developers. It was our very own city leaders who played a huge part in creating the fix we are in now. At the end of 2019 I became homeless due to no fault of my own. It was not until this year I finally located housing again and I am handing over 90% of my disability check to have it. I have no alternative. Wait lists for subsidized housing are five years long. I have no answers except I wish the people in charge would have listened to us to begin with. But they never do. They wait until it is too late and the ship is already sinking every single time. Hang in there. We need you.

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    Shirley Hayes

    May 19, 2022at10:34 pm

    Ms. Kirkpatrick, I wholeheartedly agree with you. However, when the nice restaurants cannot find a cook or waiters, when the hotels cannot find maids to clean the rooms,when Walmart and other grocery stores cannot find cashiers, when the Mall cannot locate help, they will wake up and see what they have created. ‘Regular’ people will not be able to afford to live and work here. Many places will become ‘Self Serve’. Now what happened to that life of luxury??/

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    May 20, 2022at10:50 am

    All Insurance Rate increases will directly result in additional Rental Rates and Mortgages of properties! The Florida Insurance Roofing loophole enriching Roofers, Contractors and Tallahassee Politicians is to blame. My homeowners went from $1200-ish in 2020, to $2200 last year, to almost $6000 for this year… All based on the age of our roof. Never had a claim and don’t need a new roof. Affordable housing CAN NOT exist when insurance is this expensive. Simple. Fix the loophole and get lower rents and mortgages

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