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St. Pete awarded for affordable housing efforts

Mark Parker

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Mayor Ken Welch accepts the Housing Champion Award, one of two, at the recent Florida Housing Coalition Conference. Photo: Twitter.

The Florida Housing Coalition (FHC) recently recognized the City of St. Petersburg for its pioneering efforts to address the ongoing housing crisis affecting much of the state.

City leaders walked up to the stage twice during the three-day FHC Statewide Affordable Housing Conference to collect awards. The first was for dedicating an overwhelming majority of federal funding to housing initiatives. The second was becoming the first – and likely still only – municipality to utilize legislation that allows the transformation of industrially zoned properties into affordable developments.

The conference, held at the Rosen Centre in Orlando Aug. 29 -31, attracts over 900 affordable housing professionals, advocates, lenders, developers and policymakers, according to its website. James Corbett, city development administrator, called receiving the recognition a “great feeling” and said it signifies the dedication of Mayor Ken Welch and the St. Petersburg City Council.

“To put their focus where it’s needed right now,” said Corbett. “It really shows our commitment to making a dent in providing more affordable housing.

James Corbett, city development administrator. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

The city received the Housing Champion Award on the conference’s first day for allocating the highest percentage of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to help subsidize affordable developments. In March, the city council passed a resolution to spend $34 million of the $45 million in federal funding it received this year on those projects, or nearly 76%.

The second-highest percentage in the state, said Corbett, was Orlando, with approximately 65%. He relayed that “interestingly enough,” the FHC opened that contest well in advance to encourage other communities to use more ARPA funding to create housing. Orlando, he said, trailed far behind until the end of the period.

“Before, it wasn’t he close,” said Corbett. “And then there was a pretty significant drop-off.”

Before his current role, Corbett served as St. Petersburg’s neighborhood affairs administrator. He said he is well aware of the current needs and that it will take extraordinary efforts to narrow the increasing gap between stable, suitable affordable housing and the city’s supply.

In light of that chasm, he “absolutely believes” it was a great initiative – despite it reducing federal funding for infrastructure, economic recovery, public health and safety.

St. Petersburg also took home the Leader in Land Use and Planning award for becoming the first city in the state to capitalize on House Bill 1339. The Florida Legislature passed the bill in 2020, which allows a governing body to approve developments that meet the state’s definition of “affordable” on any parcel zoned for residential, commercial or industrial use.

City officials integrated the measure into municipal code in October 2021. When St. Pete City Council unanimously approved transforming an industrial zoned, seven-acre lumber yard into the Fairfield Avenue affordable housing complex with 264 units, it became the state’s first project to utilize the process.

Corbett said he is unaware of any other cities that have initiated the process and added the award presenter thanked him for being a pioneer and taking the first step.

“We’re in the forefront of using this tool,” he said. “I believe a lot of cities are looking to St. Petersburg to take advantage of lessons learned and how they can build on what we’ve already begun.”

The Fairfield Avenue Apartments site is bordered by the Pinellas Trail to the south and Fairfield Avenue South to its north. Screengrab.

City officials, said Corbett, have identified 14 other industrial zoned properties that meet the size and other requirements for the process and could potentially transition to affordable housing developments.

In addition to the mayor and council, he stressed the importance of recognizing the many city departments and the dozens of staff members that have played a role in St. Petersburg’s recent recognition for its housing initiatives. That team effort, he said, exemplifies the administration’s “We are St. Pete” mantra.

When asked about areas for improvement, Corbett said it was crucial for city leaders and residents to understand that everyone deserves the ability to afford housing in St. Petersburg.

While there is a clear need to restrict some developments for people earning well below the area median income, he also noted the essentiality of providing workforce housing and ensuring residents have access to high-paying jobs that keep pace with rent increases.

Successful business owners, explained Corbett, are also affected by the housing crisis – as people without a place to live near their jobs are likely to look elsewhere for employment.

“It’s something that should be important to everyone,” he added. “Not just the person who may reside in the affordable housing.”

Striking a balance between affordable and workforce housing and rapid development on a peninsula inside of a peninsula is a daunting task, but one that Corbett said excites him. There is an equation, or “secret sauce,” city officials must identify, and he said he welcomes that challenge.

He added that if city officials fail to strike that balance, St. Petersburg could soon become a city where wealthy people live and play while others must live outside the area and commute to work.

“And I don’t believe that’s what any of us want,” said Corbett. “It’s good to know we’re on the right path.”

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Janet Stringfellow

    September 3, 2022at3:57 pm

    Well deserved! Volunteers of America of Florida can testify that our Pinellas County is walking the talk of supporting affordable housing for our communities. Glad that our City leadership was recognized for it. Congrats to all and thank you!

  2. Avatar

    Adrian Lee Steininger

    September 4, 2022at8:01 am

    I love this that the leaders are improving low cost housing but the housing that already exists should be kept in working condition. I live and am grateful to live here but our complex is having many problems with the building cracking and with black mold and mildew. We had a leak a year ago in the bathroom ceiling not fixed yet & neighbor has no door on her mailbox. Tenants leaving garbage outside dumpster is a big problem! We try to help each other. My neighbors have helped me many times when they see me struggling in my wheelchair. I am almost 82 years old so I appreciate their help! Maybe they need to put cameras near the dumpsters.

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