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Is the private sector key to solving the housing crisis?

Mark Parker



From left: Kimberly Jackson, executive director at the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions; Sean King, vice president of government relations for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties; Evan Johnson, planning manager for the county’s housing and community development department; Barclay Harless, St. Petersburg market leader for Bank OZK, discuss housing solutions. Photos by Mark Parker.

As a panel of local experts recently explained, identifying what’s causing the ongoing affordable housing crisis is much easier than ascertaining or implementing solutions.

However, the three local leaders did their best to relay both during a discussion Wednesday night. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions and Amplify Clearwater held the engagement at the SPC Bay Pines STEM Center.

Titled “Foundation for the Future: Building our Housing Landscape in Pinellas County,” much of the event focused on increasing involvement among the business community to mitigate the housing crunch. Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, moderated the discourse.

The panel included Evan Johnson, planning manager for the county’s housing and community development department; Sean King, vice president of government relations for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties; and Barclay Harless, St. Petersburg market leader for Bank OZK.

Harless said Pinellas County is “basically Hawaii with three bridges,” with a lack of space contributing to a limited housing supply. While he considers the recent sharp increase in interest rates a one-in-50-year event that discourages building, he also singled out irresponsible actors in the real estate industry.

“If someone wants to buy a house for 10 or 15% over what the actual appraised value is, and they’re buying in cash, a lot of people would say, ‘well that’s their money, that’s OK,’” said Harless. “What if a lot of people are doing that? You’ve now artificially inflated the price of housing.”

Like his fellow panelists, King noted that zoning changes and regulatory reform would help mitigate the problem. He said the county’s 24 municipalities mandating varying rules and regulations for the same state and federal funding is a daily challenge for Habitat.

A low-hanging fruit solution, said King, would be to align and streamline the funding process.

Johnson relayed that while state and federal funding does provide the most affordable housing money, the county’s one-cent Penny for Pinellas tax accumulates $8-$10 million annually for affordable housing. However, as he and Mathis noted, local governments cannot solve the problem alone.

Harless explained that fixed-rate mortgages for first-time homebuyers and those with poor credit could help address the problem, but St. Petersburg has lost about 70% of qualifying census tracts.

“Those mortgages have basically gone away over the last 12 months,” he said.

Those qualifiers, added Harless, are also outbid by cash buyers. Meanwhile, he said the cost of property insurance has soared, and interest rates have doubled.

“So, those programs aren’t working anymore,” he said. “Even though they haven’t changed, the market has changed so dramatically that they’re not impactful.”

From left: Barry Rubin, president of the Treasure Island and Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce, Kristina Park, COO of Amplify Clearwater; Sean King; Kimberly Jackson; Rep. Lindsay Cross; Evan Johnson; Barclay Harless; and Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown Partnership.

Harless noted the recent success of a public-private partnership to create townhomes in South St. Pete and said local governments should expand those initiatives. King said banks should increase access to credit, and relayed that the gap between white and Black homeownership in Pinellas is wider than the state and national average.

He believes restructuring the credit reporting system is a solution, as is eliminating the economic development and housing silos. Governments offer tax incentives for businesses to relocate or expand in the area, said King, but employees must live and spend their paychecks elsewhere.

“We need to continue marrying economic development and housing,” he said. “They go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other – or do it successfully long-term.”

Johnson stressed that increasing the private sector’s involvement is critical to solving the crisis. In addition to building affordable housing, he said, the business community could contribute money to a fund to help ensure workers have a place to live locally.

That money, said Johnson, would help to close funding gaps on projects. He added that a simple and free solution would be for the county’s various chambers and partnerships to attend or call into commission meetings and advocate for new residential developments.

Johnson explained that many beneficial projects fail to gain approval due to the number of residents opposed to density increases. While apartment associations and other interest groups make their voices heard, Johnson said the one assemblage that doesn’t show up is area business leaders.

“I would love to have 20 people from a chamber on that phone waiting to make the board say, ‘are you all going to say the same thing?’” he said. “It’s a big deal because people – elected politicians – react to those moments and the opposition they hear from.”






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    December 10, 2022at12:50 pm

    Perhaps including BayCare, Publix, Jabil, and other large employers groups in the discussion.

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