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In wake of administration’s concern, City Council tables housing charter amendment

Megan Holmes

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For months, the St. Petersburg City Council has spent hours debating a solution to the affordable housing crisis in the form of a “lockbox” affordable housing trust fund.

On Thursday, the ordinance to create a referendum to amend the City of St. Petersburg City Charter to create such a fund failed to pass first reading in front of City Council.

The proposed fund, initially reported by the St. Pete Catalyst last month, was requested by City Council as a local answer to the habitual sweeping of hundreds of millions of dollars from Florida’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The Sadowski fund has often been referred to as a “slush fund” for the state legislature by critics of its indiscriminate sweeping to cover general revenue budget items.

After clear objections by both City administration and the Pinellas Realtor Organization, previous champions of the referendum, Council members Brandi Gabbard and Darden Rice indicated they would vote against the measure. As a result, the Council opted not to vote on the affordable housing ordinance, essentially tabling it with no clear indication of when or if the ordinance might move forward in the future.

The City of St. Petersburg, like many other municipalities, has split affordable housing and workforce housing into categories based on percentages of the Area Median Income (AMI), ranging from very low income (not to exceed 50 percent of AMI or $33,450 for a family of four) to low, moderate and middle income (not to exceed 150 percent of AMI or $100,350 for a family of four).

Neighborhood Affairs Director Rob Gerdes addressed Council with concerns relayed in a memo to Council last week. Gerdes expressed specific “practical concerns” that the designations of the lockboxed funding laid out in the proposed ordinance could and would create conflict with income category standards already in place through programs like Penny for Pinellas and the Florida State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) program. Each of these programs already sets restrictions – different from those in the proposed ordinance – on the percentage of funds that can be used for each income category.

Gerdes also raised concerns around unintended consequences, such as whether designated funds could be used for mixed-use developments.

Pinellas Realtor Organization’s Joe Farrell told the Council that he was concerned about about the removal of middle-income housing from the ordinance. “Originally we were one of the main supporters of this starting out,” said Farrell. “But our support in the beginning was to support the funding of many opportunities moving forward.

“At this point the referendum would be more of a restriction of opportunities moving forward … specifically we believe there are many different parts of the spectrum of home ownership affordability that need to be addressed,” Farrell said. “The current discussion by Council handles most of it but leaves a very important part out … Every qualified professional or specialist in this area and the United States believes there is an issue with affordable housing for middle income and above folks.”

Farrell’s comments echo the concerns raised by Gabbard over the past two months. Gabbard, who is a real estate broker by trade, was the original champion of the referendum to amend the City Charter to lockbox the affordable housing funds. However, the original language of the ordinance, which designated funds up to 150 percent of AMI, was modified in a June 13 meeting by a 5-3 vote to include assistance only up to 120 percent of AMI.

“I echo the concerns of administration, of Rob [Gerdes] and the mayor,” said Gabbard. “I have great concern, and I’ve been very clear about this lack of funding and any ability to focus any programs on mixed-income and middle income.

“A housing plan for all, as the mayor put forward last week, is just that. It is a housing plan for all, not just some. We’ve had a lot of great debate here and I think that some of that debate, riddled with emotion for the residents that we all care so much about, has put us in a place where we’re almost pitting one group against the other and I don’t think that’s any of our intention. Maybe pulling back and having more conversation is the way that we can stop that.

“I was ready to vote yes for the ordinance at 120 [percent of AMI] thinking that with the referendum it would give us the ability over time to have deeper conversations about programs that then could be added in with a waiver option.

“When we had this conversation last week about capping the referendum at 120 [percent of AMI] as well, that is when I started to rethink all of this because I just have such concern about how that affects us in the future. With all of that, with a very heavy heart, I will be voting no on both today. If we are going to stand before the public and talk about housing for all, that is what it needs to be.”

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