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Pinellas County’s housing program finds challenges, successes

Mark Parker

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The SkyWay Lofts complex provides 65 affordable units, with 52 for those making below 60% of the area median income. The county bought the land and leases it to developers through the Penny IV program, ensuring a 99-year affordability period. File photo.

St. Petersburg is not alone in its fight to address the affordable housing crisis – as Pinellas County has committed $25.5 million in funding through its Penny IV Affordable Housing program for nine current projects, seven within the city.

The Board of County Commissioners evaluated the Penny IV Affordable Housing program during Thursday’s work session, covering its progress, challenges and topics for further discussion. Commissioners also analyzed key initiative metrics, the approval process and heard project updates.

Bruce Bussey, community development manager, highlighted market challenges affecting the program. He explained rising construction costs and soaring land values lead some developers to eschew the affordable housing program in favor of soaring market-rate rentals. He said the Sixty90 on Central project in St. Petersburg embodies all of those hurdles, and the developers have withdrawn from the Penny IV program due to rent and property value increases.

“It’s kind of a symbol of the challenges that we’re facing right now,” said Bussey. “With the market increases in rent in the 20-25% range, land values rapidly escalating and the opportunity cost of developers looking at building housing and setting aside affordable units.”

Bussey said the rent increases are probably the largest in the county’s history, and renters are unable to transition to homeownership due to those prices rising at the same rate. Commission Chair Charlie Justice asked what it would take from the state for the county to investigate the issue as price gouging, noting officials would not allow the same increases on other necessities like water or electricity.

Justice added he was not referring to new construction but owners of buildings that are several decades old, raising rents by thousands of dollars simply “because they can.”

Jewel White, Pinellas County attorney, said her office would investigate statutes regarding price gouging. She added that the previous focus was on rent-control laws, which she called ineffective due to the legislature not updating the statutes since the 1970s.

Commissioner Janet Long said everything has changed since the 1970s except for the rent control statute. She called it “insane” for the county “to be held hostage” by the outdated rules.

“People are at their wits’ end trying to make ends meet,” said Long. “Something’s got to give somewhere.”

Commissioner Renee Flowers told her colleagues that California declared a state of emergency that allowed it to designate rent increases over 10% as price gouging – although she noted the differences between the two states and said that may not be the best model to follow.

County Administrator Barry Burton said his staff formed a panel that includes representatives from several county departments to continue exploring price control options.

“But a lot of that is limited by state law,” he added.

Later in the discussion, White expounded on the county addressing price gouging. She said that would require the state to declare a state of emergency, which only exists in 60-day increments. “It does not appear to be a statute that would apply in this instance,” said White.

Despite the ongoing challenges, the Penny IV Affordable Housing program has enjoyed success. So far, the county has approved 10 projects through the process, with the Sixty90 on Central development the lone withdrawal. The county helped provide 1,169 total housing units, with 878, or 75%, considered affordable.

“They’re all in the southern half of the county, with most of the projects located in or around St. Petersburg and Clearwater,” said Bussey. “That makes sense because these are large multifamily projects wherein the urban areas there’s density …”

A chart showing the county’s affordable housing income limits. Bussey told commissioner the limits increased by 10% the day before the presentation. Screengrab.

Bussey explained the county often acquires the land for the properties and places it into the Affordable Housing Trust fund. The county then leases the land to developers, ensuring an affordability period of 99 years. He said that most units are set aside for those making between 60-80% of the area median income (AMI), while the workforce housing units extend to 120% of the AMI.

Bussey said new income limits were issued Wednesday, increasing by 10%.

“We did see a sizable increase in the income limits that just went into effect this week,” he said. “So that’ll be changing those numbers.”

The county has committed $25.5 million to the following projects through its Penny IV Affordable Housing program.

Completed:

Under construction:

  • The Shores at 26th Avenue S. in St. Petersburg.
  • Innovare at 5th S. in St. Petersburg.

Approved:

  • Arya at 5475 3rd N. in St. Petersburg.
  • Washington Avenue Apartments at 306 S. Washington Ave. in Clearwater.
  • Blue Dolphin at 610 Franklin St. in Clearwater.
  • Seminole Square at 2075 Seminole Blvd. in Largo.
  • Whispering Pines at 2655 54th S. in St. Petersburg.
  • Oakhurst Trace at 1246 16th N. in St. Petersburg.

Five projects totaling $20.2 million are under review, and two developments will go before the board on May 10 and 24, respectively – Fairfield Avenue Apartments in St. Petersburg and Lealman Trail in Lealman.

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Debi Mazor

    April 23, 2022at11:20 pm

    What incentives did the City give to Sixty90 that can be recovered after these “community-minded”
    developers discovered their profit margins would be a lot better if they didn’t have to provide affordable housing? Surely there were concessions, allowances and City services they enjoyed during the construction process that should be recouped. After raising expectations (and likely “disappointing” prospective tenants, not to mention pulling feathers out of the caps of the program’s adviocates) someone should be looking into other remedies rather than just a slap in the face. Those of us who loved the City saw the sell-out of its character and liveability over the past 15-20 years. There are people of vision who saw it coming but could do nothing to stop it. The citizens of this city deserve better, and they (not just the “techies”) deserve affordable housing in the downtown area.

  2. Avatar

    Jerome Tellis

    April 27, 2022at4:52 pm

    Is there any housing programs or any incentives to assist individuals or family with income levels above the AMI levels that are looking purchase permanent housing. I think that these individuals are being overlooked in this process.

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