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Locals, housing startups say zoning is key to affordable housing

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Cathy Harrelson's accessory dwelling unit, constructed in 2020. Photo provided.

St. Petersburg is growing. How it should grow is still a debate.

According to Co-Star, a real estate information provider, the Tampa Bay metro area saw a 15.6 percent rise in rental costs during the first half of 2021, higher than anywhere else in the nation. 

Matching this rent spike with affordable housing remains a priority in the area’s second largest city. Some want to increase population density with more structures and housing complexes. Some want rent control and guaranteed housing. Some want both, some want neither.

But many agree the current zoning laws should change to allow more innovation.

Cathy Harrelson, president of the St. Petersburg Sustainability Council, says St. Pete is nearly “built out,” and advocates for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, as an affordable housing option. 

ADUs are legal and abundant in St. Pete, but Harrelson thinks zoning laws should be relaxed so residents are incentivized to build more of them. 

“One of the great things to note, (regarding) the ADU infill of neighborhoods, is that you still have the neighborhood,” Harrelson said. “You still have a home and neighborhood street feel, but you’re able to not only accommodate more living space, but also drop the cost for the property owner and the renter.”

Currently, St. Pete’s code allows ADUs in lots no smaller than 4,500 square feet. Floor areas in the structures themselves can be up to 750 square feet. ADUs also must match the aesthetics of the neighborhoods they’re built in and include an off-street parking space for residents. 

Read more about the zoning code here.

Harrelson lives in her very own ADU in her son’s backyard. She had the 650 square-foot unit built because it served as the best solution for her to stay close to family while maintaining an affordable, private dwelling. 

But, she says, the process of getting city officials to approve her new home was fraught with headaches.

“The biggest problem that I had building this was … the number of inspectors that come out; just the different inspectors for the same thing each and every time,” she said.

Jennifer Bryla, development review manager for St. Pete’s Planning Department, says city contractors are required to have inspectors review their buildings during multiple steps of the construction process. She says these regulations are meant to “protect the aesthetic standards in our established neighborhoods.”

“And we’re not apologetic about that,” Bryla added. “I think that a lot of our residents count on the city to protect that standard and that property value.”

But the zoning code has also deterred investors who claim their bold ideas would serve people struggling to pay rent.

Docked Living, a company that creates communal housing, or “co-living,” has multiple locations in St. Pete, but is now moving its more ambitious projects to Pinellas Park, where its staff says zoning officials are easier to work with. 

According to Nicholas Price, head of development at Docked Living, the company and its founder, Mark Hunter, sought approval for years to build an eco-village in St. Pete. The plan included housing that surrounded a farm and a corresponding farmer’s market. The city turned them down.

Price says Docked Living caters its units to those who can’t afford to dish out $1,500 for an urban apartment, but still want to experience innovative, community living. He says St. Pete’s zoning codes weren’t compatible with many of his company’s ideas.

Similar concerns over a lack of adequate housing have sparked an international movement called YIMBY, an acronym meaning “yes, in my backyard.” YIMBYs, as supporters have become known, advocate for housing policies that would drive quantity and creativity in the housing market.

St. Pete’s local YIMBY group says it wants to “change the policies that restrict home building,” in an effort to grow the city’s affordable housing options.

One of its first suggestions is for officials to allow more “upzoning,” which means building multiple dwellings on a single lot. This would include policy that encourages the creation of more ADUs like Harrelson’s, which can be used as affordable rentals that simultaneously raise property values.

This is just one idea the group lists. It advocates for a variety of other policy changes as well.

But despite the movement’s growing popularity, Jillian Bandes, founder of YIMBY St. Pete and project manager at Bandes Construction Company, says the group receives criticism from both sides of the political aisle. 

“On the left there is a criticism that this is a free market solution that won’t work, and on the right this is a criticism that it’s going to disrupt the character of these neighborhoods,” Bandes explained.

Harrelson says that while she does not believe zoning policy will solve St. Pete’s affordability crisis on its own, she does support an increase in housing density overall, and thinks alternatives like ADUs and multifamily units are better than traditional homes that take up space and can only accommodate one family at a time.

“I would rather see a duplex or triplex than a big single family home,” she said. “We have a lot of those. I’m not saying you can’t build it anywhere, but honestly I’m not sure where it makes sense anymore.”

In July, St. Pete’s mayoral candidates attended a forum focused solely on housing affordability and zoning, ensuring the issues will be a major part of the ongoing race. Read about each candidates’ ideas here.

 

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