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Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Column: St. Petersburg tackles affordable housing crisis

Everyone deserves the chance at the American dream of home ownership. But lately it is hard enough to even find an affordable apartment because St. Petersburg is in the middle of an affordable housing crisis. Housing is intertwined with job growth and transportation policies, but we need to take a deeper look at how to get more types of housing built or rehabbed at a reasonable cost.

The numbers do not paint a rosy picture.

In 2016, 35 percent of households in St. Petersburg — including 45 percent of the elderly — spent over 30 percent of their income on housing. In other words, more than a third of St. Pete residents are cost-burdened by housing expenses. More troubling is the fact that 16 percent of all households spent half of their total income — or more — on housing.

As the costs have grown, so has demand.

The Shimberg Center, a trusted source on housing affordability, states that by 2040 we will have to build 2,500 new affordable units to house low-income residents. The St. Petersburg Housing Authority has reported a waiting list of 720 applicants for their Public Housing Program and 16,000 applicants for the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Neither program is accepting new applicants.

These statistics mean real people are struggling. Lisa Hughes knows all too well the struggle of finding an affordable rental. Lisa was forced out of her one-bedroom apartment in Largo during Hurricane Irma. Even with a Section 8 voucher valued at $886, she couldn’t find another apartment in Pinellas County. Since 2013, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit has increased by 46 percent, to $1,100 per month. The recent bump in federal housing subsidies has offered little relief. The vouchers do not meet fair market rental rates in this booming housing market. At one point, Lisa was temporarily homeless and was forced to live out of her car.

Our middle income residents are also being priced out of the housing market. For example, in 2016 an Emergency Medical Technician or paramedic in the Tampa Bay region had to carve out 43 percent of her monthly income to afford a fair market rent of $992. It’s 49 percent of monthly income for a nursing assistant, 42 percent for a restaurant cook, 39 percent for a construction laborer and 43 percent for a preschool teacher.

These residents are critical components of our regional workforce. They feed, house, educate and care for our citizens. If they cannot afford to live here, we become less competitive to attract talent.

St. Petersburg needs to ensure that lower-income, elderly residents and our middle income workforce have access to affordable housing options. That is why the City Council is considering options to address the issue — including reducing development costs and regulatory burdens, enhancing incentives to build affordable housing through innovative and flexible zoning and planning, and evaluating proposals to create dedicated local funding sources to finance new construction.

More controversial issues such as inclusionary zoning and linkage fees will require thoughtfulness and political courage to fairly debate. As chair of the Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee, I am working with my talented council colleagues, Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes, and the Neighborhood Affairs team to consider these options individually. We plan to move forward a discussion on implementation this year.

Already, the City Council has budgeted an additional $50,000 for the Rebates for Rehabs program. Importantly, we also set aside $15 million of the next round of Penny for Pinellas funds for affordable housing.

I remain optimistic that St. Pete is up to the challenge of taking on heavier lifts to address the housing crisis. Housing is part of our Grow Smarter economic development strategy. As a city of opportunity, how we continue to respond to affordable housing needs reflects how willing we are to make equity and inclusion a priority in our city’s growth. Although we are not often given credit for the many housing solutions we have undertaken, the fact remains that the housing crisis is a multifaceted problem: decreased land, the rising cost of living, stagnant wage growth and limited incentives for landlords and developers.

That is why I am committed to addressing this issue comprehensively with a robust team. We need all hands on deck because this crisis affects not just the working poor but the entire community. How we meet this challenge will bode for what kind of city St. Pete ultimately will become.

Darden Rice is a St. Petersburg City Council member and chair of the council’s Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee.

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