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.”
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.
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.
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.”