As a thriving city on a peninsula, how to best combat the ongoing affordable housing crises has been a hot topic across St. Petersburg.
A forum on Tuesday evening was held with the sole intent of shedding light on how the candidates vying for the St. Pete Mayor’s office will work to address the issue, with a focus on reducing the barriers of zoning, bureaucracy and time. Held at St. Pete College’s Allstate Center and livestreamed through the St. Pete Catalyst website, seven of the eight candidates attended, after Marcile Powers withdrew after coming in contact with Covid-19.
Implementation of the “new” Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential (NTM1) zoning category was addressed several times throughout the forum. Although approved unanimously in December of 2019, the zoning change has not applied to any neighborhoods in St. Petersburg.
Candidate Pete Boland said he would act in the first 100 days to implement NTM1 across the city, as well as analyze things like parking requirements. He relayed that he has heard many stories of parking requirements affecting multi-use homes, and that addressing affordable housing is an old problem in St. Pete.
“Who could imagine that a tiny peninsula on the west coast of Florida that has been 99% built out for 30 years could have such an affordable housing crisis,” asked Borland rhetorically. “We need to move quickly.”
Candidate Ken Welch supports the initial application in two major corridors as an initial step, but is wary of how this will affect those making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). Welch said that studies have shown that up-zoning can increase the cost of housing and make it less affordable for those making less than 80% of the AMI.
“I do support the broader application city-wide, but we need to have the study to know what the real impact would be,” said Welch, citing a study conducted in Chicago.
Candidate Wengay Newton said the urgency is now, and there is no time to wait and have more studies. “Weight broke the wagon,” he said. Newton added that allowing for accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) such as garage apartments, grandmother suites, tiny homes on existing properties would impact the problem and many people are breaking the rules and doing those things now.
Moderator Valerie Hyman said that it could take up to five years to write and apply a new zoning designation, and asked the candidates what they would do to speed up the process. Candidate Robert Blackmon said that when it comes to increasing efficiency, “the mayor waves the big stick.” He said there are many ways to achieve this – such as reducing permit fees, something he fought for on the state level last year.
“Also, just realize that supply always reduces demand,” said Blackmon. “We do need to have denser building and also relax zoning to increase the supply we’re putting out on the street.”
Candidate Michael Ingram lamented the time it has taken to implement NTM1, asking why officials would create a new zone if they were not sure how to implement it. He said that losing time to Covid is not a viable excuse, as a plan should have been in place before voting on approval.
“The city is not here to make a profit, we’re not a developer,” said Ingram. “We’re here to provide for the people of St. Pete, and that’s the responsibility of the mayor.”
Candidate Darden Rice said the solution is additional staffing and that she would hire more people and cross-train existing personnel. She said she would cut the red tape, streamline procedures and waive fees to unlock affordability.
“With more staffing, we can get through these heavy workloads,” said Rice.
Regarding speeding up the paperwork and permitting process, candidate Torry Nelson said that communication is key and he would strive to make it fun for people to get permits and do business with the city.
“We need great customer service,” said Nelson. “We need our customer service to be parallel to Chick-fil-A.”
Blackmon said that he would increase funding for the building department. He said that regardless of what issues are prioritized, if the building department is overwhelmed with the current amount of volume and their systems are outdated, permits are not going to go out quick enough. He also said that more clarity in the process is needed.
“Even builders and contractors … have gotten so confused and fed up with the permitting process in our city that there’s a cottage industry of third-party permit filers,” he said.
Welch said that the worst thing someone could do is make assumptions about how a process can be improved, whether staffing, funding,or technology. “You ask the people doing the work, the customers,” he said. “The process, in actuality, is different than it is on paper.”
Welch added that the city is up to date on its software and got through the pandemic thanks to the online permitting process.
Borland said that as a business owner, he “would be happy to pay a greater permit fee if it wasn’t going to get held up for three months.” He said the city needs to take a hospitality approach. Expanded hours, more staffers and more online resources are things he would implement.
When it comes to communicating their new policies to the public, Nelson said that he would “be a citizen first.” He said that he would not be sitting in his office, “trying to pretend like he’s a celebrity.” Instead, he would be out in the community with his sleeves rolled up, working, and talking with the public.
Ingram said that he does not want to convince anyone and he would prefer people to see the process and see that it is working. He added that as such a young candidate, he will still be walking the streets of St. Pete in 60 years and wants people that are here now to still be able to afford to live here then and thank him for helping to make that a possibility.
“We all love St. Pete,” said Ingram. “The city should treat us like it loves us back.”
Rice responded by saying “the guys have come up with some great ideas for tactics, but tactics need a strategy.” She said that she would create an Office of Public Engagement, meant specifically to work with and talk to residents as the city leads them through change.
“Over the years I have witnessed firsthand where the public needs to apply a new mindset and skillset to engaging the City,” said Rice. “And this is so important for us to get right.”