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Housing issues dominate Pinellas board talks

Margie Manning

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Mike Sutton (center), president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, presented a check to Pinellas County commissioners, representing the nearly $960,000 in property taxes paid in 2020 by homeowners helped by Habitat.

Housing issues were front and center at Tuesday’s Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners meeting.

Commissioners fought back against critics of their initial housing allocations from Penny for Pinellas funding. Commissioners separately were thanked for the county’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity, one of the largest housing organizations in Pinellas County.

Housing has become a dominant issue in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area. Concerns over affordable housing have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A recent report by the Milken Institute ranked the area No. 145 among 200 large metro areas for housing affordability, calculated as a percentage of wages, in 2019. Companies looking to relocate or expand consider housing affordability as a key factor to attract young workers, Milken officials said.

To address that issue, the county commission in 2019 approved a resolution saying 4.15 percent of funding from the Penny for Pinellas tax – a one-percent sales tax – would be set aside for land acquisition for affordable housing. Last week, FAST – a coalition of 40 religious organizations – accused commissioners of breaking their promise, because not all of the initial Penny allocations were for housing designed for the lowest income families, those whose household income is 80 percent or less of the area median income, or about $56,000 for a family of four.

Similar allegations that the board was not living up to its commitment were repeated at Tuesday’s commission meeting, prompting Commissioner Janet Long to speak out.

“This is about the fifth or sixth time in the last several days that we have been accused of breaking our promise and I quite frankly am over it,” Long said. She asked Barry Burton, Pinellas County administrator, to “correct the record.”

While the county has a preference for projects that serve households at 80 percent of AMI or less, the 2019 resolution does not require that, Burton said.

The commission in January agreed to provide $11.6 million in Penny funding for four projects with a total of 702 apartments. Of those, 412 apartments are restricted for affordability, including 193 of them for households at 80 percent or less of AMI and 219 of them for households whose income is between 80 percent and 120 percent of AMI.

The Penny funding is a sweetener for developers who otherwise would only build market-rate apartments, Burton said.

“We have developers now interested in working with us on affordable housing units that otherwise would continue to produce 100 percent of those units without any affordability restriction,” Burton said. “By allowing them to have some at [120 percent] AMI and below, and others at market rate, they are now willing to work with us.”

Commissioner Rene Flowers said she met with FAST representatives and stressed to them how difficult it is to find a developer who will only build projects with housing for the lowest-income residents. Flowers also spoke in favor of mixed-income housing instead of a concentration of apartments for low-income residents. When builders develop a range of housing for different income levels, it’s impossible to tell which units are for the lowest-income residents, she said.

There are 14 additional projects in the pipeline for Penny funding, most of which provide apartments for the lowest-income residents, Burton said.

“This is round one. We’ll have two more rounds this year …  and the story will be told different when you look back two to three years from now and you see the number of units that are actually being built as a result of our efforts,” he said.

Record year

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, a nonprofit that helps families build and improve homes, had a record year in 2020 despite the pandemic, Mike Sutton, president and CEO, told commissioners. The organization, which believes affordable housing strengthens communities, built 61 homes last year and has completed more than 660 homes since 1985.

Pinellas County has provided Habitat with nearly $3.4 million in funds from SHIP – the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program – and that subsidy has helped serve more families, Sutton said.

In turn, new homeowners pay property taxes to the county.

“This year, our homeowners paid almost $960,000 in property taxes and next year that will probably be close to $1.2 million,” Sutton said. “Although we love that you continue to provide funding to us, we also love to bring money back to you.”

Sutton highlighted Habitat projects in two north Pinellas neighborhoods – Ridgecrest and Dansville.

“What’s great about both Ridgecrest and Dansville is that the majority of the homeowners there before Habitat came in were generational families. They lived there for many generations. There wasn’t a lot of rental in the community. What we did was complement what was already there,” Sutton said.

“It wasn’t just a matter of going in, building homes and moving people in. We did a lot of targeted recruitment from within the Ridgecrest community. It was important that at least 50 percent of the homes we built in Ridgecrest were existing Ridgecrest citizens, because we wanted to make sure we stayed true to the history of the community and the demographics of the community as well.

“A Habitat community looks like a melting pot, and I think we’ve been able to do that in both Ridgecrest and Dansville and at the same time complement what was there.”

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