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Proposed referendum could put affordable housing fund in St. Pete City Charter

Megan Holmes

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St. Petersburg City Council may soon be looking to enshrine an affordable housing fund into City Charter through a citywide referendum. Council member Brandi Gabbard brought forward a proposed ordinance during the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting Thursday to amend St. Petersburg’s City Charter to create an affordable housing “lock box” at a local level.

Citing the habitual sweeping of Florida’s state affordable housing trust fund by the Florida legislature (nearly a third of Sadowski funds are expected to be used for general budget purposes this year), Gabbard explained the need for the kind of “lock box” fund that would restrict spending to affordable housing only. “This is for the future of St. Petersburg,” Gabbard explained. “This is for the future residents, which councils and mayors going before us will serve.”

The proposed ordinance was the product of two different Housing, Land use and Transportation (HLUT) meetings, a committee that Gabbard chairs. Gabbard’s proposed amendment would have separated the creation of the fund itself from its funding mechanism, a step that gave other Council members and members of the Mayor Kriseman’s administration pause.

Council member Amy Foster argued against the referendum’s ballot placement in 2019, and its separation from a funding structure. Foster cited that statistically, referendums fail during non-presidential election years and especially when voters feel that they don’t have enough information.

“We have to think about, if the prudence of putting the charter prohibition in place and lock boxing this money, if the prudence of doing that is threatened or harmed by not telling the voters where the money is coming from first,” said Council Chair Charlie Gerdes. “Then we probably ought to do where the money is coming from first and the lock box second.”

“The fund is great, I think it’s a great idea, I totally support it,” said Council member Darden Rice. “But we’ve got to talk about revenue to fund it, or what are we doing?”

Council member Steve Kornell proposed a special revenue fund similar to the Weeki Wachee fund, where interest and investment revenues from a pool of money are designated for a specific purpose. In the Weeki Wachee fund, where the original pool of money came from the sale of city property in Weeki Wachee Springs, Fl., the revenues can only be spent on parks, recreation, preservation and beautification.

Kornell eventually put forward a motion asking staff to come to the next COW meeting on June 13 with a plan, tying the proposed trust fund referendum with a one-time, one year millage increase (or other funding source) to create the initial pool of money that would go into the proposed lock box. The motion passed 7-1.

The proposed amendment to the city charter will come alongside other major moves within the city government to fund affordable housing. The Committee of the Whole will also be presented with a modernized housing capital improvement (HCIP) fund plan on June 13. Results from the city’s nexus study, to examine the feasibility of linkage fees, is expected in the fall.

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