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Mayor, faith group disagree on affordable housing

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg City Councilmember Copley Gerdes (front left) and Mayor Ken Welch (front right) tour the Sixteenth Square Townhomes affordable townhome development in January. Photo by Mark Parker.

In March, an interdenominational faith-based advocacy group penned an open letter criticizing Mayor Ken Welch’s efforts to address a lack of affordable housing in St. Petersburg. He has responded.

Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) directly addressed the mayor in its letter, published March 21 by The Weekly Challenger. The historically Black newspaper printed Welch’s pointed rebuttal Wednesday afternoon.

St. Petersburg-based FAST has used its expansive network to influence public policy over the past 20 years. It urged city officials to prioritize creating housing for those earning up to 80% of the area median income, or $69,500 for a family of four.

“As we fight for affordable housing, our city leadership continues to seem unmoved by the outcry of the community members,” FAST wrote. “High-rise, expensive rental townhomes and condos continue to be approved, driving more people out of the neighborhood …”

Rev. Robert Ward, senior pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, was the first of 21 signatories. Over 50 interfaith congregations comprise FAST’s countywide coalition.

Median rents have spiked by about 30% since the pandemic. According to RentCafe, the average cost for an 872-square-foot apartment in St. Petersburg is $1,991 monthly.

FAST wants Welch to create 5,000 affordable homes capped at 80% of the AMI by the end of his first term in 2026. The organization believes that is achievable – despite the average cost to build a new unit now topping $300,000.

St. Petersburg’s leadership is working to create and preserve 7,800 homes by 2030. They have also expanded zoning allowances for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and increased downpayment assistance.

“This crisis is felt most by those who were already struggling to provide basic necessities for their families,” FAST wrote. “We are seeing and hearing stories of young people graduating and starting out in their first careers and leaving our community due to a lack of affordable housing.”

Welch noted that FAST ignored two decades of collaborations. The organization’s website highlights that it secured commitments from Pinellas County Commissioners – including Welch – to establish a Housing Trust Fund in 2006.

FAST took credit for commissioners dedicating $15 million in tax funding for affordable housing in 2015. Welch vacated his seat in 2020.

“To say that city leadership is ‘unmoved’ by the housing challenge is frankly deceptive and patently false,” Welch wrote. “It’s especially disappointing when people of ‘faith,’ who have worked with me and other leaders to successfully implement well over $100 million in local affordable housing funding … are so comfortable making such misleading statements.”

Welch provided receipts. The city added 1,050 affordable units last year and saw a net annual increase of 1,365 residences.

A graphic showing area median income (AMI) limits for completed and proposed housing units. Screengrab, city documents.

City officials provided many of the statistics Welch shared in his letter at a recent Housing for All update. His administration has dedicated over $50 million in federal and South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funding to support the initiative.

Welch said the city has prioritized housing capped at 80% of the AMI since establishing the trust fund. Local officials only subsidize developments offering units at or below that income level.

Welch noted that 96% of housing completed with city funding over the past two years is for residents earning 80% of the AMI. He also took issue with FAST’s “unproductive” approach, “which demeans even the most committed elected officials, never rewards success, nor build partnerships.”

Market conditions will likely prevent city officials from meeting the group’s demands. Mark Van Lue, housing development manager, recently said the average cost to build a new unit is $343,000.

While just 4% of units built last year are above the 80% AMI target, 63% of “in-progress” homes are for those earning between 80% and 120%, or up to $104,280 for a family of four. Amy Foster, housing development administrator, said that should come as no surprise “considering the market shift we’re seeing.”

Speaking at an April 11 committee meeting, Foster blamed ever-increasing construction costs. She also noted the demand for workforce housing.

Mayor Ken Welch said faith-based organizations could follow the Palm Lake Christian Church’s (pictured) lead and offer property for affordable housing. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The city is over halfway to meeting “the majority of our goals to create more workforce units, ADUs and new homes, as well as providing financial assistance to those who need it the most,” Welch wrote. He also offered a faith-based housing model as “multiple requests to meet” with FAST were “not accepted.”

Welch said he will ask state and federal lawmakers to support legislation that empowers faith communities to develop affordable housing on church-owned property. He invited FAST and other organizations to partner with his administration on a local initiative.

Welch noted that Rev. Oscar Banks of Palm Lake Christian Church is building onsite affordable housing. Banks was the last signatory listed on FAST’s letter.

The city will likely subsidize that development and is exploring a similar opportunity with the First United Methodist Church in downtown St. Petersburg. “This model can indeed be replicated, given the large amounts of land and properties that FAST and other faith-based organizations own,” Welch wrote.

He also urged FAST to consider meeting. The organization invited Welch to participate in its April 30 Nehemia Action meeting focusing on affordable housing.

However, Welch said FAST denied his request for a private, collaborative conversation before the annual event. “No one entity can affect meaningful change, especially in the affordable housing space,” he wrote.

 

 

 

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Beverly jung

    April 27, 2024at11:26 am

    OMG moratorium in rent! You do remember when the mayor of Orlando said he was asking state to put cap on Orlando’s rentals. That was spring of 2023. The elites went running to desantis in uproar. They mostly own a majority of rentals. Desantis within a week
    signed into law no rentals would ever be capped. As long as he is govenor. He works in tandem with the rich residents of Florida. That’s all he cares about. Sad to see this.

  2. Avatar

    Carolyn

    April 27, 2024at9:23 am

    No, government isn’t a charity but it is there to provide basic needs to a community. I can’t think of a better way to use public funds than on something like affordable housing. The city spends less on this than on baseball. FAST as a group tries to steer city and county officials to address those in need. I don’t get the opposition to this, because if left to their own devices, will they address those in need of a decent place to live? I don’t think so, according to past actions. Developers get breaks, individuals rarely do.

  3. Avatar

    Susan Deane

    April 26, 2024at1:26 pm

    Everyone is missing the main reason there is a lack of affordable housing. Affordable for the working people to have what they work for, a roof over their heads. Section 8 housing is a whole different subject.
    It started with realtors convincing sellers to get into bidding wars to put more money in the Realtors bank accounts. That in turn put more money into the Title Co. and the Mortgage Co. bank accounts in the form of higher closing costs. That in turn put more money in the State’s bank account in the form of higher sales tax collected. So now, you just sold a house that was probably was very affordable to live in. You now have to pay alot more for the next home you purchase. Your property taxes are going to be ALOT more for property taxes that the County gets to put in their bank account. Your homeowners and flood insurance is going to go way up because your new house cost ALOT more. Is this making any sense? Your realtor just made you think you were going to make alot of money. They just took it right back from you so they and they’re connections could make more money. If the Cities and States really want to do something about the lack of affordable housing, they would put a moratorium on home sale prices and rent prices. Don’t expect that to happen, they would ALL lose money.

  4. Avatar

    Tina

    April 26, 2024at10:45 am

    What should a faith community provide? A church on the property with security gates is an asset. Stairs could pose as a threat to young children as well as older adults. Volunteer work is a way to say thank you for a safe, faithful community.

  5. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    April 26, 2024at12:58 am

    I humbly disagree with the Faith based group. The City of St. Pete constantly works toward work force housing for its citizens. I read each article and City Council reports. Where the City is lacking is in Government funded housing.. There are very few Section 8 houses South of Central Avenue. Tenants have been forced to move since 2020. Some have rented for 10 plus years to have the houses sold out from under them. Zillow has purchased an unusual number of homes in the City as have other realtors. Since they cannot sell them, they are renting them for very high rates. People making $12 to $18 an hour really have difficulty finding affordable living spaces.
    What has these churches done for resident housing????????????????

  6. Avatar

    Tom Tito

    April 25, 2024at7:58 pm

    When counting new units of affordable housing it is vital to also count the number of low cost homes that were lost during the same time frame. Public housing has been replaced with Section 8 units that can be sold by the owner. The last public housing lost in the Gas Plant area was Graham Rogall, which was gentrified. The St. Petersburg Times has said that 6,000 low cost homes were lost in the downtown area alone. Mobile home parks are fast disappearing. USF St. Pete, the hospitals and the innovation district have cleared block after block of good homes.

  7. Avatar

    Mike

    April 25, 2024at1:34 pm

    The government is not a charity. The absolute last group I want lobbying the government is religious zealots. If these people want to spend money, that is their right as Americans. The religious zealots need to stop employing the government’s monopoly of force to steal money as taxation to pursue their extremist ideas of how the economy should run.

    Literally the second villain in the Bible is the taxman. Yet here they both are to lie cheat and steal from the citizens of this community.

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