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‘We know what’s best for our cities:’ Local leaders address housing crisis

Veronica Brezina

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Panelists left to right: Sen. Jeff Brandes, also the founder and president of the Florida Policy Project; Melissa Zornitta, AICP, executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission; Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn; and Tampa Bay Times real estate reporter Rebecca Liebson. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

With over 800 people migrating to Florida every day, coupled with the Tampa Bay area’s rising notoriety among the best places to work and live, local leaders are grasping at straws trying to accommodate the new residents bolstering the region’s economy. 

“These challenges are a result of our success, not our failures. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with them,” former Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said. 

Buckhorn was one of several panelists speaking at the Tampa Bay Times’ Spotlight Tampa Bay event Wednesday evening at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. 

Buckhorn, who was elected to office in 2011, helped the city manage its $30 million deficit. 

“We were a city in decline, not a city on the rise,” he said. “We were in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression … mortgage foreclosures, job losses, people fleeing. For us to get to that promised land, part of it involved energizing and rebuilding the urban core because we knew if we were ever going to be successful, not going to lose our kids to the Charlotte, Austin and Raleigh’s, we had to create an environment where young people wanted to be.” 

Buckhorn took major strides to intentionally activate a city that essentially went quiet after 5 p.m. With business leaders, he crafted the InVision Plan, a guide for building out the urban core; undertook the development of the Riverwalk pedestrian trail along the Hillsborough River, activating the city’s waterfront amenity; and supported Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s Water Street endeavor, with Class A office space and condos. 

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Buckhorn said. 

Times real estate reporter Rebecca Liebson said that regardless of the type of residential project – high-end, market-rate or affordable housing – it all helps offset the dire need for more homes and limited inventory, which correlates to higher housing prices. 

Former state senator Jeff Brandes explained how Tallahassee legislators have failed to implement a unified strategy to address the housing crisis. 

There isn’t a silver bullet that could solve the ever-growing issue, but Brandes said there some resources in the toolbox that could somewhat help mitigate it, such as expanding accessory dwelling units, also known as mother-in-law suites, and transforming certain clusters of residential areas into more walkable and approachable neighborhoods.

However, these strategies may not resolve the underlying root of the problem – funding. 

Ultimately, I believe no matter the amount of state money we put towards affordable housing, unless we find a way to deal with the overall supply and demand problem at a market level, we aren’t going to get there,” Brandes said. 

He said there needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to bring the housing and rental rates down. 

Melissa Zornitta, executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, said leaders anticipate welcoming 450,000 new residents to the county by 2045. 

“The immediate reaction from homeowners [on accessory dwelling units] is ‘not in my backyard,'” Buckhorn said.

Recently, the St. Petersburg City Council has enacted zoning changes that allow density increases on nearly 3,000 properties. The new Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential (NTM-1) zoning rules apply to properties within 175 feet of “future major streets” and currently high-trafficked roads.

Proponents said it was a critical strategy to move the needle – at least for now – while the county received immense pushback from neighbors about the added density and potential parking issues. 

Zornitta said homeowners were also concerned about the dwelling units converting into Airbnb vacation rental properties. 

“The state has preempted us from using some of the tools at our disposal,” she said. 

In July, the Live Local Act (Senate Bill 102) went into effect, increasing affordable housing funding and simultaneously stripping regulatory powers from city and county governments

Per the bill’s language, municipalities must authorize any multifamily and mixed-use developments in commercial, industrial or mixed zoning areas if 40% of the residential units are affordable for 30 years. Local leaders must also provide the highest allowable density in that area.

In addition, administrators must permit the maximum height for a commercial or residential property within one mile of a proposed development. 

Tallahassee lawmakers shouldn’t impede the authority of local governments, becoming a hindrance as local leaders are trying to address growing pains, Buckhorn and Brandes remarked. 

“We know what’s best for our cities,” Buckhorn said. “I don’t need some legislator from Palatka to tell me what’s good for Tampa, Florida. We can do that on our own.” 

Other factors go hand-in-hand with the crisis. “We have a real challenge keeping up with school construction [projects],” Zornitta said.

The problem exacerbates when investors strapped with cash scoop up the available land. “The school district is competing with developers who are buying land at a premium for luxury condos,” she said. 

Zornitta also said one of her goals is to aid the county in pre-planning sites rather than waiting later to pull the trigger. 

“Without a dedicated revenue source – whether it’s for roads or schools – you need a constant stream of revenue to cover the long-term debt in order to do a big project,” Buckhorn said. “Local governments will never be able to get ahead of the curve without dedicated revenue sources for 30-year increments.” 

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