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St. Pete becomes first to utilize affordable housing bill

Mark Parker

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Robert Gerdes, Neighborhood Affairs Administrator, presents City Council with proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan. Screengrab.

The City of St. Petersburg will become the first municipality in Florida to take advantage of a House Bill that allows for a process to create affordable housing in zoning districts where it would otherwise be prohibited.

A proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan was brought to City Council at its meeting Thursday, which provides a process for council to review and potentially approve affordable housing developments to be constructed in areas previously zoned for Neighborhood Suburban, Neighborhood Traditional, Industrial Suburban and Industrial Traditional use.

The amendment is in response to the ongoing affordable housing crises and House Bill 1339, which the Florida State Legislature passed last year. In part, the bill states: Notwithstanding any other law or local ordinance or regulation to the contrary, the governing body of a municipality may approve the development of housing that is affordable, as defined in s.430.004, on any parcel zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial use.

“I’m actually shocked that we had a gift from Tallahassee during the 2020 session as it pertains to affordable housing,” said councilmember Brandi Gabbard. “Because Lord knows that doesn’t happen very often.”

Developers must meet strict qualifying criteria before their applications are considered. These include the zoning district location, property size, minimum number of units, mandatory affordability for all units to be at or below 120% of the AMI, a minimum affordability period, and proximity to services requirements.

Other key elements of the proposed ordinance that would create this new Affordable Housing Site Plan approval process are as follows: Requirements for public notice of a hearing, extensions and durations of approval, application process and requirements, procedures for city council review and decision, and standards of review for the applications – which includes a review of the proposal for compatibility impacts to the surrounding areas.

In addition, if the property is located within an industrial zone, an environmental report for the property and an analysis of surrounding industrial activities must be conducted. If a development will displace an existing business, a plan for relocation of the business and re-employment of existing employees must be drawn up.

Councilmember Robert Blackmon admitted that he initially “pushed back” against the proposed amendments because of his “inherent desire” to create more jobs rather than potentially losing them to redevelopment. However, after giving the issue more thought and seeking community input on the matter, he has had a change of heart.

“It’s become obvious to me that some of these sites are more aspirational moving forward than they are practical, and you’re just never going to have that kind of industrial level return like we had in the past,” said Blackmon. “I do not at all want to stand in the way of what’s happening today. I’m in agreement with it – I’m going to vote yes.”

Gabbard expressed concern that developments in industrial zones would need a five-acre buffer, limiting the number of potential parcels available to 15. A one-acre buffer would raise that number to 90, and Gabbard asked if there was a “happy medium” they could reach to increase the number of available parcels. Robert Gerdes, Neighborhood Affairs Administrator, said that he was previously instructed by the council to take industrial zoning out of the process, and had to make concessions to keep it in the proposed amendment.

“If we want to make that type of change, there’s going to have to be further discussions, and I’m not sure where we’ll end up,” Gerdes warned.

Once a developer meets the criteria to apply, there is a substantial number of standards for review that the council must consider before approving a project.

Before being presented to the city council on Thursday, the proposed amendment went through several months of public and committee input. On Aug. 3, the Development Review Commission held a public hearing and made a finding of consistency with the city’s Comprehensive Plan and voted 6-1 to recommend approval.

The Community Planning and Preservation Commission held a public meeting on Aug. 10, and made a finding of internal consistency with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and voted for approval. Forward Pinellas also notified the city on Aug. 10 that the organization reviewed the proposed amendments and found them consistent with countywide rules.

The only organization to express concerns was the Council of Neighborhood Associations which submitted a letter directly to city council stating that the proposed ordinance has the potential to adversely impact the character of neighborhoods. While most of the organizations and committees are in favor of the proposed changes, many suggested modifications to the plan were put forward.

Council Chair Ed Montanari said, “this is an example of government working fast.” He added that he “does not want to get in the way” of the progress and that council can discuss modifications at a later date. “It’s amazing that we have this tool, and we’ve reacted so quickly to implement it.”

City council voted unanimously to approve the amendments, and a second reading and public hearing are set for Oct. 14.

 

 

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