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Pinellas commissioners OK controversial guidelines for Penny spending for housing

Margie Manning



Photo by Randy Fath/Unsplash

The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners has approved guidelines for using some of the proceeds of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax for housing projects for low-income county residents and for office and industrial development.

Approval came despite concerns from an advocacy group, Faith and Action for Strength Together. Despite assurances from county commissioners, FAST members are worried that under the guidelines, too little housing will be provided for the poorest residents in the county, those who make less than $50,000 a year with incomes that are 80 percent or less of the average median income.

“There is a long history in this community of money that was set aside for the poor and needy being allocated instead for those of more upper class,” said Rev. Kathleen Walter, rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Clearwater, and a FAST board member.

More than 50 FAST members turned out to urge commissioners to reject the guidelines as written.

Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the guidelines, after County Administrator Barry Burton said determining how to spend the money continues to be a work in progress, and additional criteria to implement the guidelines are still being developed.

The intent is to target the lowest-income households, in keeping with a resolution approved by the county council earlier this year, Burton said. In some cases, the money could be used for housing for people with income up to 120 percent of the average median income, if there’s a study that identifies a gap, but that’s not the primary target, Burton said.

Significant need

There is a significant need for more housing for low-income residents, said Evan Johnson, capital improvements and policy manager for Pinellas County Planning.

There are 143,000 households in Pinellas County whose income is 120 percent or less of the average median income and who are “cost-burdened,” because they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

Commissioners earlier this year approved a resolution, affirming their intent to set aside 4.15 percent of the fourth round of the Penny for Pinellas 1 percent sales tax for affordable housing, about $82.5 million over 10 years. The  same amount is set aside for economic development, including office and industrial projects.

A joint review committee has been working for several months to create the spending guidelines for the Penny IV funds, Johnson said.

A state statute that authorizes the Penny tax also requires money spent on housing have some connection to economic development, Johnson said. That typically means “workforce housing,” but the statute doesn’t clearly define the income requirements for that housing, he said.

There’s a distinction between workforce housing and affordable housing, said FAST member Bob Meehan.

“Many of the families in greatest need for affordable housing are not and probably will never be in the workforce,” he said, citing the elderly, disabled, medically ill and special needs persons.

The guidelines developed by the joint review committee prioritize several types of housing projects. Mixed-income rental projects for which development rights already are in hand top the list. The guidelines include income levels up to 120 percent of the average median income to maximize the flexibility of the program, but priority will be given to projects designed for people with 80 percent AMI, Johnson said.

Commission Chair Karen Seel and Commissioner Ken Welch each cited the board’s earlier commitment to spend the Penny money for housing for the lowest-income families and individuals.

“This is about as solid as you can get,” Welch said. “I know FAST wants certainty, but the only certainty is making sure you stay involved and you elect folks who will support this going forward.”

The next step is a Dec. 18 meeting between the county and its municipal partners to talk about working together on the guidelines for affordable housing, Burton said. That will be followed by a summit in the spring to discuss advancing mutual housing goals. By then, administrators expect to have specific criteria for housing funding.

Ready to build

Like housing, there’s a big need for new office and industrial space to attract and retain businesses, said Mike Meidel, director, Pinellas County Economic Development.

Industrial spaces in the county are smaller and older than many companies currently want.

“In general, the demand is for larger space, higher ceilings and more parking than we have available in the current stock,” Meidel said. “The same holds true of office space. They need more parking, they need larger floorplates and they needed new space. We don’t have a lot of Class A office space available anywhere in the county that is a sizable chunk.”

The guidelines commissioners approved for economic development projects were much less controversial than those for housing.

“First and foremost we want to create new office and industrial space. The highest priority will go to  people who are ready to build and make that product available to targeted industries,” Meidel said.

There’s also a focus on locations that are highly in demand, including targeted employment centers — most of the Gateway area, a lot of the Bryan Dairy area, a significant part of the Oldsmar Industrial area and scattered sites throughout the county, from Tarpon Springs to south St. Pete. Other high-demand locations are urban activity centers in downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Pete.

“Primary and secondary corridors are those transportation corridors you find on the Forward Pinellas plan, where we are already try to increase density and to help link jobs to affordable housing to the training programs necessary to bring people up in their income levels and improve their career ladder as they move forward with their lives,” Meidel said.

A top priority will go to new construction, expansion or rehabilitation of office and industrials buildings. Penny IV funds for economic development also can be used for site readiness and for public infrastructure. All the proposals seeking funding have to document a financial gap, or a lack of funding that would prevent the developer from generating sufficient returns without the Penny IV money.

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