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Fair Housing Act trumps neighbors’ concerns

Mark Parker



Vacant land at the Palm Lake Christian Church could soon house 72 people with physical disabilities and provide 14 affordable cottages. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Dozens of disgruntled residents publicly opposed Palm Lake Christian Church’s plan to transform long-vacant land into affordable housing; concerns focused on density, crime, drugs, property values and potential tenants.

After three hours and 36 minutes of often heated discussions, the St. Petersburg city officials found their claims unfounded. Some admonished the church’s neighbors for suggesting that people struggling to afford housing or those with disabling conditions did not belong in their Disston Heights neighborhood.

What began at 7:45 p.m. following a lengthy zoning debate did not conclude until 11:21, with city council members unanimously approving Palm Lake Christian Church’s (PLCC) initiative – made possible through 2020’s House Bill 1339. The site plan calls for a three-story residential building with 72 units for people with disabilities and 14 casitas, or cottages, surrounding a community garden.

“I’m going to make it very clear on the record right now, just to make sure that everybody understands,” said Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz, an attorney. “I will not consider anything that’s going to be in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or anything that prohibits us from discriminating based on any of the criteria that we have just spoken about.”

A rendering of the cottages that will serve as workforce housing for those making 120% or below the area median income. Screengrab.

Despite the hearing running well into the night, many of the 100 previously registered speakers still expressed contempt for the initiative. Concerned residents also hired an attorney – not present for the meeting.

Instead, Mafe Rajul, a former Seattle judge and attorney who recently moved to St. Petersburg, spoke on behalf of the opposition. She also lives in the neighborhood.

Like many speakers, she focused on a preliminary plan that stated the three-story building would house “people with disabling conditions” and seniors. Under Florida statute, a disabling condition could include diagnosable substance abuse disorder and mental illness.

The church’s land abuts Northwest Elementary School’s property, separated by a chain link fence. Several speakers said council members would endanger the children if they approved the initiative.

Fencing currently separates Palm Lake Christian Church’s property from Northwest Elementary School and single-family homes.

Rajul said the preliminary plan also included language that said 20% of proposed units would house the homeless. At the hearing’s onset, Amy Foster, community and neighborhood affairs administrator, said it would not feature homeless housing.

Additionally, Rajul said “church members have denied this housing project will house people with substance abuse disorders or people with serious mental illness.” However, she noted the preliminary development plan still used that term.

While the cavalcade of public speakers who followed also focused on that phrasing, the hearing’s priority was determining if the site plan aligned with city stipulations under HB 1339.

While the preponderance of speakers spoke in opposition, Foster relayed that she received 186 emails in favor and 102 against the proposal. A PLCC neighbor who rents space from the church disagreed with that count.

The property consists of 8.32 vacant acres behind the church at 5401 22nd St. N, in west St. Petersburg. The plan is possible under HB 1339, which allows municipalities to expedite residential developments that meet the state’s definition of affordable in otherwise prohibited zoning districts.

In September 2021, the city became the state’s first to codify the process – with additional criteria. That includes a minimum of five acres and 60 units; a location within two miles of a public or vocational school, one mile of a grocery store and the Pinellas Trail or a city park and a quarter mile of a PSTA bus line; and a maximum rent or sale price at 120% or below the area median income (AMI), with a 30-year minimum affordability period.

PLCC’s plan checked all those boxes, and Foster explained how city administrators also mandated “special conditions.”

Those include a 50-year minimum affordability period, with 72 units at 60% AMI and below and 14 at 120%, or workforce housing. While many residents said affordable housing would lower their property values, Councilmember Brandi Gabbard noted those numbers nearly align with the neighborhood’s average annual salary.

PLCC or the future property owner must provide an annual income verification update, allow city inspections, utilize an affordable housing management company, connect buildings to sidewalks and implement pedestrian lighting. In addition, city officials mandated dozens of planning, engineering, landscaping and transportation requirements.

City administrators also believe the development would not detract from the neighborhood’s character or exceed current building heights. They recommended the council’s approval.

“I’m just down the street, not even a block away,” Foster said. “There are a number of different apartment complexes three times as dense …”

She relayed that council members received a study before the hearing showing affordable housing does not decrease surrounding property values. “There were a number of reports around the country around that, but we did have a report provided specific to the City of St. Pete,” Foster added.

An overhead map with church’s property highlighted. Screengrab.

The Fair Housing Act

While PLCC representatives swore under oath that the affordable units were for people with physical disabilities rather than those with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders, it would not have mattered. That is due to the Federal Fair Housing Act strictly prohibiting discrimination against “race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, familial status or religion.”

City Attorney Michael Dema said, “it’s not a gray area of law.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Justice stated it is discriminatory to even “consider the fears or prejudices of community members when enacting or applying zoning or land use laws.”

“That’s quote, unquote,” he added.

As someone that suffers from a chronic illness, Councilmember Richie Floyd said he was “deeply uncomfortable” with the disability discussions and “asking the applicant to pick and choose which people are worthy of living in this neighborhood.”

Gabbard relayed that the council is proud of implementing HB 1339 and said it was “not the boogeyman.” While she and other council members wished PLCC representatives communicated plans to residents better, she believes that most would still oppose the development.

Gabbard called it inappropriate to include disability conditions and said St. Petersburg “is not that kind of city.” She also noted that many people in every neighborhood have mental health and substance abuse issues.

“That doesn’t make them bad people,” Gabbard said. “That doesn’t make them bad neighbors, and that does not make them unworthy of calling St. Pete home.”

The council unanimously approved the project and mandated that PLCC representatives must host a least two public forums, and request a meeting with Northwest Elementary School officials 15 days before submitting any permits.

“There are criteria and you have to stick with it,” Councilmember Copley Gerdes concluded. “No matter what your emotions tell you about it – you got to use your head. I just appreciate this body for reminding me of that, and I’m very proud to be a part of this body today.”

One view of Palm Lake Christian Church’s vacant land – a scarce commodity in St. Petersburg. Photo by Bill DeYoung.


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  1. Avatar


    March 7, 2023at3:26 pm

    No one from the church has met with the school itself the principal, teachers, parents, or any other group of people whose children go to that school. We have a complete sympathy for people that are struggling. Not one member or officer, perhaps with the church has spoken with anyone at the school, the parents, or the teachers. Our concern is with no on-site help for people that are having these struggles to be this close to an elementary school. For the school to say no comment is completely unacceptable. We have all seen tragedies that happened in the deception that the church board gave to the surrounding community is disgusting. Let’s really look at this as it happened.

  2. Avatar

    Mrs. Smith

    March 6, 2023at7:52 pm

    I’m going to say this just because I think it needs to be said. The so called “disgruntled” neighbors were never against affordable housing. We are against housing for severe mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders without the proper assistance/counselors in place to assist these people in need. Why? First, because they deserve the help they require that the church will not provide! Second, this location is next to an elementary school and our children, your children, the communities children do not deserve to be subjected to individuals who are trying to overcome their obstacles WITHOUT the proper treatment. Again the church would not provide this.. Third, the church lied to their neighbors, staff and even their members. They refused to answer any of the community questions with any detail. The information they did provide was contrary to what they actual proposed in their filing. Due to their lies and deceit the neighborhood lost faith in anything the church said. If anyone believes that the church is going to be honest to their future tenants you are sadly mistaken. All the neighbors asked for was transparency of their intentions. If you think the church is doing this for noble reasons, please understand, the church owner will make millions (tax free) while every one of their renters struggles to live paycheck to paycheck. To be crystal clear for those who misunderstand, we are in support of affordable housing for the right reasons (low income families/ single parents, disabled or the elderly) or with the necessary support because we know how expensive St Pete is. We are struggling too! The angry reactions came from a place of concern, again because we were mislead. This neighborhood full of “real jerks” are the same neighbors that would watch out for your children while they play with our kids so you can you finish cooking dinner or run inside to answer a phone call. You can think what you want but none of the council men or women have this type of affordable housing in their neighborhoods and neither does the church owner. Ironic isn’t it!

  3. Avatar


    March 6, 2023at11:17 am

    The church was deceptive from the beginning in releasing information as to what their plans were. For those that attended the meeting at City Hall meeting, you would’ve heard from all the neighbors about how no one was given correct information. This is a neighborhood of single-family homes. The plan is too much for this neighborhood. Build affordable single family homes and not a 3 story building. Not zoned for this. This is a wonderful friendly neighborhood and am proud to call it home.

  4. Avatar


    March 4, 2023at1:38 pm

    I wanted to drop a note of support for the proposed building of new affordable housing on the property owned by Palm Lake Christian Church at 54th St. and 22nd Ave. in St. Petersburg. This should be the beginning of a long overdue mission to provide shelter for people and families that can’t afford anything close to what rental fees have risen to, making it out of reach. This is an attempt to assist with the overwhelming need that has presented itself in counties, towns and cities everywhere for far too long. Where there’s change, there are naysayers, and this is no exception. People can not or will not see the forest for the trees. It’s quite simple: there’s a dire need to turn some of the trees into the wood required to build shelter for people who are otherwise homeless.
    This is 2023, and in this insane world, we need to start standing shoulder to shoulder and deal with the reality of that, and do what is right for the greater good. If nothing else, the past three years have proved how we can keep on keeping on when we

  5. Avatar


    March 4, 2023at9:47 am

    I’m a single woman, a working professional who’s been at the same job for over 9 years and counting, has lived in the same apartment for nearly 10 (have to finally move this summer), earn approximately 80% of the area’s AMI, have an excellent credit score, who is going through the first time home buyer program. I can tell you, not just anyone can come along and get assistance to buy or even rent a house. It’s quite difficult and there are a lot of requirements, especially for a single-income person. I am the type of person who would benefit from affordable housing. Thanks for tipping me off that the people who live in this neighborhood are real jerks and best to be avoided.

  6. Avatar

    Kari M

    March 3, 2023at5:54 pm

    This church is taking the initiative to address a shortage of affordable housing for 72 residents in addition to 12 homeless persons. Renters will have to pay a minimum of $764 and the housing will be for seniors and those who are physically disabled. Since disability and social security is often not much more than $900, most of these residents will likely be working part-time as well. They will make for good neighbors and should be included within our neighborhoods. The church already provides housing for homeless persons in a responsible way so providing housing for 12 homeless persons will likely not result in additional impacts to the surrounding neighbors.

    The best thing neighbors can do is get clarification from the church on the project so that they can understand exactly what to expect. The developer is required to request a meeting with the neighborhood for this purpose.

    I’m not affiliated with the church or developer but I support this project because it will provide a much needed chance for success in life for 86 people that almost certainly don’t have better options. I hope the community will recognize and support more projects like this.

  7. Avatar


    March 3, 2023at4:50 pm

    Disston Heights not familiar with what’s happening all around St. Pete and Tampa Bay? Shoutout to the church for including affordable housing and for the government not getting in the way with what a private land owner wants to do with their land.

  8. Avatar


    March 3, 2023at2:01 pm

    Horrible. Just horrible. Witness the destruction of a neighborhood.

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