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Good Afternoon Members of YIMBY St. Pete,
On behalf of the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, I want to thank YIMBY St. Pete for inviting us to co-sponsor your mayoral candidate forum, Zoning is the Answer: Mayoral Candidates Confront St. Pete’s Housing Crisis. Unfortunately, our organization made the decision to decline to sign on, and we felt obliged to explain our reasoning.
According to data recently released by the CoStar group, the Tampa Bay Metropolitan Area has seen a 15.6% increase in rent prices since the beginning of 2021. This is the most significant increase in any metropolitan area in the entire country. The Orlando area saw an increase of 14.5%, putting two Florida cities in the top five. As hundreds of people move to Florida every day, and with the pace of new construction severely lagging behind where it should be, we are undoubtedly in the midst of a public emergency which is reaching a critical juncture. As your organization points out, over a third of Pinellas families are currently paying more than 40% of their income on rent or mortgage, significantly impacting many residents’ quality of life.
We agree that the reform of archaic zoning laws is an important facet in allowing for development of denser, more sustainable and ecologically-friendly housing. However, we also recognize that it is only part of the conversation surrounding relative affordability, not the answer, as your forum’s title suggests. We flatly reject the premise that “a successful plan for affordable housing is one that allows the private sector to build their way out of the problem, rather than depending on grants or other government support.” Increasing supply of so-called “middle housing” through a city-wide application of NTM-1 along with other new, market-rate units may eventually benefit some low- to middle-income individuals and families by stabilizing rents across the board. This approach will not benefit the majority of our most vulnerable residents, though.
In Pinellas County, we lack 34,000 units priced for those making at or below 50% of the area median income, according to a 2018 estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The private sector will never be incentivized to price new or existing housing at this level without significant public investment; families within 50% AMI don’t have time to wait for a theoretical market equilibrium and rent stabilization achieved by allowing unbridled development of market-rate housing. For the thousands of Pinellas County families who have been evicted in the past several years, and the thousands more who currently face pending evictions in the Pinellas County court, it’s already too late.
The only patent solution to this public emergency is a massive, renewed investment in public housing, robust tenant protections from eviction, and a seismic shift away from viewing housing as a commodity, and instead viewing it as a right that every member of our society should be unconditionally afforded. We need elected officials in government, from the local level up to the federal level, who aren’t afraid to declare housing a fundamental human right; who aren’t afraid to fight and advocate for housing that’s not just “affordable” or “attainable,” but guaranteed.
Furthermore, by relaxing zoning without a plan in place to develop an adequate amount of housing priced for our most vulnerable, we risk further exacerbating the negative effects of gentrification in our city by threatening to destroy the cultural fabric of historically black neighborhoods in South St. Pete. Without mechanisms set up to protect those whom the private sector fails to serve, as it has time and again in vulnerable communities, we risk allowing thousands of individuals and families to sink beneath a rising tide which is falsely promised to lift all boats.
Finally, we want to impress that we have deep respect for your organization’s individual members and advocacy efforts. That said, we have serious concerns regarding the direct ties to big development of the organization’s founder. The founder of YIMBY St. Pete serves as the Vice President of Bandes Construction, a company which has donated thousands of dollars to a largely Republican slate of politicians and political candidates in the state of Florida over the past 20 years. This includes Ron DeSantis, who recently signed into law HB 337, a measure which restricts local municipalities from increasing impact fees on developers. These fees are critical to local infrastructure and the development of new, affordable housing. Another measure, HB 7103, which was championed by the Republican-dominated state legislature and signed into law by DeSantis in 2019, requires local municipalities to fully offset costs to developers stemming from inclusionary zoning requirements. Given these contributions, we question whether the intention of the market-dominated approach espoused by the founder of YIMBY St. Pete is a sincere attempt to effect housing affordability, or if it’s part of a larger, opportunistic attempt to increase personal profit for certain involved parties.
We look forward to a continued dialogue surrounding the housing emergency occurring in the Sunshine City, and to collaborating when our mutual advocacy efforts come into alignment. This letter has been forwarded to each mayoral candidate’s campaign, as well as other co-sponsors of your forum. We wish you all the very best with your event.
William S. Kilgore
St. Petersburg Tenants Union
Editor’s note: The referenced event had approximately 30 equal co-sponsors with no lead sponsor.