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Community Voices: We owe city leaders a debt of thanks

Jason Mathis

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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.

Let’s start with a simple premise: everyone deserves a clean, comfortable and safe place to live. Like many other communities, St. Petersburg is struggling to provide housing for all the people who want to live here, at a price everyone can afford. And like any complex, urban challenge, there are many interrelated factors (stagnate wages, high construction costs, suburban zoning requirements, NIMBYism, etc.) that all contribute to the affordable housing challenge. As a community, we need to create and preserve housing options that will meet our current and future needs.

In a letter to the City Council last year, the Downtown Partnership recommended working with the business community to identify best practices and to think creatively about how to incentivize affordable housing. Our voice was one of many in this conversation, and city leaders have been working on this issue for a long time. But there has been meaningful progress that we shouldn’t take for granted. Over the past several months, city leaders have moved forward in a variety of fronts to encourage the private sector to help build housing for middle class and lower wage employees while helping to create stronger more vibrant, economically diverse communities. The City’s efforts are not perfect, nor are they a silver bullet to solve this enormous and complex challenge. But they are thoughtful and welcome. And they show real commitment to finding solutions in an expedited way.

As recommended by Mayor Kriseman and his staff, the Council has already worked to:

  • Streamline the process to approve workforce housing bonuses, making it easier and quicker for developers to access state funds for affordable housing projects.
  • Lower the fees for zoning reviews for smaller homes and workforce housing.
  • Lower parking requirement for multifamily developments and allow accessory dwelling units on smaller lots.
  • Changed design requirements for new affordable homes to reduce construction costs.

 

The City is still working on additional policies that would change zoning to allow for a new kind of neighborhood plan that allows for more diversity of housing including duplexes, townhomes or tiny homes (think Old Northeast-style development). This new kind of neighborhood would be centered on major streets with transit connections.

On an administrative level, the city has also:

  • Expanded Community Redevelopment Area housing programs.
  • Added new employees to help fix up existing housing stock to help keep low to moderate-income people in their homes.
  • Increased efforts to acquire vacant lots that can be turned into low-income housing.
  • Developed a plan to spend $15 million over 10 years for affordable housing from the Penny for Pinellas fund.
  • Established a Citizen Policy Advisory Committee for affordable housing initiatives.

In July, Mayor Kriseman announced a comprehensive 10-year plan dubbed “For All, From All” that synthesized many of the efforts underway and added new elements with a goal of creating or maintaining 7,000 new or preserved homes.

The plan rightly recognizes that government alone can’t solve this challenge. And market forces alone will not solve this problem. In the end it will take a dedicated approach from business leaders and policy makers, along with housing advocates, neighborhoods, developers and financial institutions to find the creative solutions. But we are on the right track.

Too often business leaders complain about government bureaucracy, regulations and taxes without recognizing when government gets something right. We owe a debt of gratitude to Mayor Kriseman, his team and the City Council for working to find creative and thoughtful solutions that help to harness the power of the private sector.

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