Weeds are the only thing that has grown vertically nearly eight months after local leaders broke ground on a long-awaited South St. Petersburg affordable townhome development.
City Councilmember Gina Driscoll expressed relief that a public-private partnership was paying dividends after years of “ups and downs” at the ceremony for the Shell Dash Townhomes last December. St. Louis-based developer Bob Mayer, president of Exact, acknowledged Driscoll’s support through “a lot of bad news.”
However, Mike Sutton, president of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, explained Monday that the private partners encountered permitting and zoning challenges. In addition, construction costs continue soaring.
“After some conversations, we decided that Habitat – because we’re on the ground and we’re local – we would take the lead on the project,” Sutton explained. “If affordable housing was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
A complicated history
The city council first approved a lease and development agreement with Exact in February 2021. The plan was to create nine affordable townhomes and relocate the historic Shell Dash Cottage from 856 2nd Ave. N. to the vacant, city-owned site at 1120 16th St. S.
A partnership with Preserve the ‘Burg and the cottage’s owner collapsed, and the council approved an amended lease in August 2021. They also increased funding incentives by $72,000 to $458,000.
In January 2022, Mayer requested an additional $417,000 to cover rising construction costs. City officials asked the developer to reduce income restrictions from 120% of the AMI to 80% and increase the affordability term to 30 years.
Mayer returned to City Hall in March 2022 to request another $617,000 to mitigate soaring inflation. That doubled the original city funding amount, not including the land, to $1.075 million.
At the time, Mayer said his team had “skin in this game,” and “to be real candid, this is not the type of project I would normally do.” While an extensive public-private partnership – including the local Habitat affiliate – persevered, Mayer forewarned attendees at the Dec. 8 ceremony that stormwater issues and other challenges remained.
“Unfortunately, a lot of affordable housing tends to take place in communities where the infrastructure is poor,” Sutton said Monday. “When you go in there and put in a new development … it requires a lot of upgrades. It adds cost, and it’s not cheap.”
Driscoll expressed her disappointment and “impatience” for the delays. She thought things “were looking up” when Mayer and Sutton partnered.
She also said city officials could not continue providing land and funding to developers for affordable housing without results.
“It makes me wonder, with agreements like this, do we need to have a shorter time frame where they need to be moving on something in a certain amount of time – or else the deal is off,” Driscoll added. “At this point, I’m wondering if we could have worked with another group that would be going vertical by now.
“We can’t afford to have these projects in limbo at a time when it’s getting harder and harder to afford to live in St. Petersburg.”
Despite a lack of visual progress, Sutton stressed that the partners have continued working behind the scenes to move the project forward. He noted that they were “constantly going back and forth” with the city regarding permitting.
Habitat has a strong local presence and staff “on the ground” in St. Pete, and Sutton and Mayer decided it made sense for the organization to assume the lead role. Sutton said Habitat is now the primary contractor, while Exact will provide engineering services.
He also credited Mayer and Gabriel Dilworth, president of SPC Contracting, for bringing the project to this point. Sutton hopes to bring updated site plans to the city council in August.
The 10-unit development on the 16th Street South business corridor would still provide homeownership opportunities for people making less than 80% of the area median income (AMI). Potential buyers must also complete 350 to 450 sweat equity hours and take over 30 related classes before receiving a 0% interest mortgage.
Once complete, Shell Dash residents will own a home just a few blocks south of the Tropicana Field/Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment site. Sutton called that aspect “huge.”
The site also borders the Campbell Park neighborhood and multiple schools, and he said the townhomes would provide homeownership opportunities within walking distance for those employees and others in the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).
“The 16th Street corridor is such an important piece of history to South St. Petersburg,” Sutton added. “I’m excited about it.”
He does not plan to request additional city subsidies to see the project to fruition. However, he may ask to increase the previous $219,000 sales price cap to mitigate rising costs.
Sutton expressed appreciation for city officials’ patience and commitment to the project. If they approve the updated plans next month, he hopes to move 10 new homeowners into the Shell Dash Townhomes by late 2024.
“We’re actually in a really good place,” Sutton said. “We just need that final approval from the council to move forward, and we’ll be moving dirt.”