Affordable housing for the Tropicana Field redevelopment plans hinges on government incentives
St. Petersburg community members and housing experts weigh in on redevelopment proposals for the site of Tropicana Field ahead of an expected decision on Monday.
On Monday, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch will make a decision about the redevelopment the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and the area around it, known as the Historic Gas Plant district.
In June, Welch scrapped former mayor Rick Kriseman's preferred plan and requested a new wave of proposals, requiring developers to address the city’s need for affordable housing in their plans.
This comes after a year of record-high inflation and cost-of-living increases nationally, and in a city where where residents called for rent control measures.
The four firms included large allotments for affordable housing in their plans, ranging from 850 units to more than 2,500.
Earlier this month, nearly 700 community members gathered online at the Coliseum in downtown St. Petersburg to hear from the four teams bidding for the redevelopment project.
Residents meandered through poster board renderings, video projections and 3-D models illustrating four different concepts for the 86-acre plot in downtown St. Pete.
READ MORE: See how these development firms hope to reimagine the Tropicana Field site
Among them was Earl Presley, a lifelong St. Pete resident, who said he'll be watching to see just how affordable these projects will be.
Nearly forty years ago, Presley says members of his family owned land in the Gas Plant District before expansion of the interstate and construction of the baseball stadium displaced the historically Black community.
"I would like for whomever is wanting to develop that 86 acres of land to have community in mind — to be partners with the community as a whole," he said.
His hope is that the descendants of the Gas Plant District can afford to live there once again.
USF professor and housing expert Elizabeth Strom said that although the plans look great on paper – it’s all hypothetical until a developer starts “turning dirt.”
“You can get too focused on the specifics of different plans,” she said. “And I’m not sure that any of these developers, if they were chosen, would realize exactly the plans they have.”
In short, no matter how lofty the developers’ plans for building affordable and workforce housing – they’re bound by the level and amount of government incentives they are able obtain.
There are several tools at developers' disposable to finance affordable housing projects. They can mix and match these financing options to help offset the cost of construction that can't be made up by charging fair market rent.
But applying for these financing tools can be a competitive and lengthy process.
Strom said that means that the projects promising thousands of units will have to beat out all other developers in the area vying for funding – over a long period of time.
“I mean, essentially, they're saying that the lion's share of affordable housing for the whole Tampa Bay area will be concentrated in that area, because there's a finite amount of federal state and local aid," Strom said.
Despite differing stategies to finance affordable and workforce housing, all of the four firms would rely on federal low-income housing tax credits, which are competitive and come with requirements.
To qualify, the projects must set aside a minimum percentage of units for low-income residents.
For example, developers could be required to set aside 2 of every 10 units for renters who make half of the average median income in St. Petersburg. For a family of four, that equates to about $41,000. Rent for that family should be no more than $1,025 to be considered affordable.
When the representatives for the affordable housing teams for all four firms were asked their financing strategies for the affordable housing components of their plans – here is how they responded:
50 Plus 1 Sports
Head of Coral Gables-based 50 Plus 1 Sports, Monti Valrie, and Tom DeMuth, with Fresh Coast Development Partners, talked on behalf of their team's affordable housing strategy.
Their team committed to allocating 50 percent of their 6,748 proposed residential units to be affordable or workforce housing. DeMuth verified this number after the city's consultant's report pointed out a clerical error in the budget submitted by 50 Plus 1 Sports.
The team also received criticism about lacking a formal affordable housing lead. In response, DeMuth pointed out that the original request for proposal by Welch did not require the firms to name a formal housing partner.
He contended that the technicality does not reflect a lack of commitment or intention on behalf of the team's affordable housing strategy.
"What sets us apart as far as affordable housing is that we're going to build affordable housing regardless of whether we get the 9 percent credit," DeMuth said. "We've made that commitment."
He said the advantages of their strategy is three-pronged. Above all, they have verbally committed to personally covering the construction cost of the affordable units if competitive housing tax credits are unable to be secured. The team has committed to keep rents below market-rate beyond the minimum-year requirement. And, lastly, the team pointed to the prowess of their partner, JLL Project Development, in the recent construction of another "sport-anchored" multi-use space at The Battery in Atlanta.
On Wednesday, a press release for 50 Plus 1 Sports announced that the firm intends to team with municipal bond issuer Stifel Investments to finance their proposed $1.3 billion stadium, which would allow the project to be financed without taxpayer dollars.
Gas Plant District Restoration Associates
Paula Rhodes, CEO of Invictus Development, is heading up the team’s affordable housing strategy for Restoration Associates.
In the team's initial proposal, she provided phasing and financial details for the construction of the first 1,000 affordable units. Rhodes said this would serve as a roadmap that could be contracted or expanded depending on the availability of government resources and market factors at the time of construction.
She said this market can be volatile, but she has tested experience navigating the industry. Namely, Rhodes' served as a liasion for the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which could give the self-identified "home team" a leg up in Florida's affordable housing finance industry.
“There is a point at which it's just make-believe because at this point we don't know all of the resources that will be available,” Rhodes said.
Beyond the first 1,000 units, Rhodes said that Restoration Associates has committed at least 50 percent of all residential units will be either workforce or affordable housing units.
She highlighted the team’s efforts to encourage accessibility and walkability to the project, which can also impact affordability. In particular, she pointed to the construction of a $350 million intermodal center over the I-75 corridor that will also serve as a gateway to the south.
Hines & Tampa Bay Rays
Buwa Binitie, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Dantes Partners, is proposing 850 on-site affordable and workforce housing units and another 600 off-site residences.
The Hines-Rays proposal includes the lowest percentage of affordable housing units, compared to the other plans.
In response, Binitie explained that their team’s relatively conservative approach reflects a sober understanding of the shared resources available to finance affordable housing projects.
The team also garnered some criticism over the apparent lack of detail surrounding the plans for the 600 off-site units. In lieu of solely new construction, the team plans to post a $15 million contribution to impact residences and fund rent and down payment assistance programs.
"If that ends up becoming a dig on our proposal, we're very comfortable with that approach," Binitie said in response. "If we are providing opportunities for people to be able to buy homes, I don't see that as a bad thing at all."
Notably, the city's consultant's report indicated the monetary contribution as a strength rather than a weakness of the proposal.
A Nigerian immigrant, Binitie founded Dantes Partners after graduating college and struggling to afford housing in New York City. He said this has inspired his company's mission to build "luxury affordable housing" in U.S. cities with climbing rent.
Binitie said he brings extensive tax credit financing experience that sets their proposal apart from the others.
Sugar Hill Community Partners
The only team that was previously in the running during the initial wave of proposals, Sugar Hill said that they’ve strengthened their proposal since the last time St. Petersburg considered their plan. Namely, with the team's addition of PMG Affordable and by gaining partnership with the St. Pete Housing Authority.
CFO of Blue Sky Communities Scott Macdonald and principal of PMG Affordable Dan Coakley together represent the team's affordable housing development strategy.
Coakley acknowledged the ambitious number of affordable housing units that their proposal has committed to build, and he challenges the notion that reaching that benchmark will be unattainable.
“We have 50%, affordable and workforce in our total residential unit count. So that's 2,600 affordable and workforce units. That's a lot of units.”
Macdonald said what sets Sugar Hill’s proposal apart is the unique funding options available to them as partners with the St. Pete Housing Authority and their proven track record of developing successful housing in the greater Tampa Bay area. Namely, as the master developer commissioned on Robles Park Village.
Their proposal aims to debunk the way some affordable housing projects have been mischaracterized historically, as neglected public housing that are siloed away from society.
“What we're going to do here is totally in opposition to that,” Coakley said. “It's about mixed income. It's about affordable and workforce income level tenants living with market rate tenants in an indistinguishable way with everyone having access to the same amenities and opportunities on sight.”
Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.