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St. Petersburg is the first Florida city to use new housing affordability zones

A St. Petersburg Council Meeting taking place.
City of Saint Petersburg
Under the new law, St. Petersburg can allow developers to apply to build affordable housing where they previously could not.

Under the new law, St. Petersburg can allow developers to apply to build affordable housing where they previously could not.

St. Petersburg is the first city to use a new state law that helps officials more easily approve affordable housing.

But some advocates say it might not mean much for low-income residents.

The new law (HB1339) was passed during the 2020 legislative session and took effect that July.

It gives local governments the authority to establish criteria that would allow developers to apply to build affordable housing in zoning districts where they previously could not.

Rob Gerdes, St. Petersburg’s Neighborhood Affairs Administrator, said that housing affordability is a significant issue for the city.

“We've been working very hard on our 10 year plan to try and increase housing affordability. A large part of that is providing more affordable and workforce multifamily units into the marketplace,” said Gerdes. “One of the concerns with doing that is land scarcity, land cost, and land availability.”

He added that according to recent data, “about 34% of households in St. Petersburg are paying more than 30% of their income for housing.”

“So that's fairly significant,” said Gerdes. “And we definitely want to work to reduce that, and allow more households to have an opportunity to have housing they can afford.”

Developers can apply to build affordable housing on St. Pete land zoned Neighborhood Suburban, Neighborhood Traditional, Industrial Suburban, and Industrial Traditional.

Gerdes said that each zone has their own criteria related to the minimum size of the property and the minimum number of units that can be built.

“And if a developer meets these requirements, then they can go forward with an application, which would be reviewed according to multiple criteria for consistency with the neighborhood parking requirements, drainage requirements, and making sure that the development is compatible with surrounding uses,” said Gerdes.

Under the new rules, St. Petersburg will accept affordable housing applications in Neighborhood Suburban and Traditional areas if there’s a minimum of 1 acre and it has a minimum of 20 units. For Industrial Suburban and Traditional, the requirements are 5 acres in size and a minimum of 60 units.

Zoning map of St. Petersburg
City of Saint Petersburg
City of Saint Petersburg
Zoning map of the city of Saint Petersburg.

But there are some who question the effectiveness of the changes.

William Kilgore, an organizer with St. Petersburg Tenants Union, said he’s not opposed to zoning reform but that the rules take a “market-dictated approach.”

“It's kind of the whole idea that if we deregulate, and just make it easier for developers to build, that that will somehow create affordable housing for everybody. And that's just not true.”

Kilgore added that the changes will have “a zero effect” for most working people in the city, seniors on fixed incomes, and our homeless population.

“For the people on the lowest end, I mean, this is a crisis, people are being thrown out in the streets daily here in St. Pete, being evicted. People are being displaced and moved from the area,” said Kilgore. “And so we need to prioritize our most vulnerable populations first. That's just what this really fails to do.”

Both neighborhood and industrial areas would require rent or sale prices to be at or below 120% of the area median income. Kilgore said that’s the equivalent of an annual income of $62,000 for a single person, which he calls “a huge threshold.”

“Some of these working class communities where people are established in places like South St. Pete, these historically Black neighborhoods, you're going to end up seeing a complete displacement, demographic change,” said Kilgore. “And that's unfortunate, because this housing really isn't for a lot of the working people who are living in these places.”

He emphasized the importance of “guaranteed” housing rather than “accessible” or “affordable” housing.

“We need to be guaranteeing housing to everybody unconditionally, anything less is barbarism. It is criminal to have people living on the streets in the shadow of luxury developments in a city that's burgeoning and they say it's prosperous.” said Kilgore. “Well, if it's not prosperity for everybody, it's prosperity for no one.”

Sean King, the Director of Government Relations and Advocacy for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, said while the changes are not going to solve the problem of housing completely, it's a step in the right direction.

“This isn't just for any development or any developer, this is providing an incentive for affordable housing development. So it's literally helping put more units and redevelop land that would have otherwise sat vacant or would have been used for non residential purposes,” said King. “Every single additional unit we can get out of the ground hopefully is a family or an individual that is helped and served by that.”

King added that the homeownership gap between white families and families of color within Pinellas County is about 35 percent.

He also said that affordable housing is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's kind of hard to shelter in place or be safer at home, and follow the health guidelines and protocols if you don't have somewhere stable or safe to stay,” said King. “It's kind of that rock-bottom basis that communities need to thrive. So we think affordable housing is paramount to the success of any community.”

Christina Loizou is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second semester with WUSF.
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