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Coalition Says Pinellas Commissioners Broke Affordable Housing Promise

exterior of yellow apartment housing unit
Pinellas County Housing Authority
A faith-based coalition wants Pinellas County Commissioners to fund more affordable housing projects like the Norton Apartments in Clearwater.

A St. Petersburg coalition is holding Pinellas County's board of commissioners responsible for not sticking to its agreement over affordable housing.

A faith-based coalition of Pinellas County churches and other organizations is saying that county commissioners broke a promise when it comes to affordable housing.

The group, Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, held a virtual conference via Zoom Thursday to talk about their concerns.

In November of 2017, before a vote to renew the Penny for Pinellas tax was held, FAST held a community event in St. Petersburg.

A majority of the commissioners told attendees that 4.15 percent of the tax would be used to create affordable housing in the area for families making less than 80 percent of the annual median income (AMI).

The renewal drew 83 percent approval from voters.

Commissioners repeated that promise at a 2018 FAST event and passed a resolution formalizing it a year later.

But FAST members say the commission instead spent $9 million of the taxes collected to instead create housing for families above that 80 percent mark.

“I understand that everyone has the personal responsibility to work to make a living and provide for themselves and their families. However, we live in a system where people work more than one job, and yet spend over half of their income on housing right here in our county,” said Rev. Lee Hall-Perkins, pastor of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Clearwater.

“These hard-working people are one paycheck or one personal tragedy away from experiencing homelessness.”

“This is a crisis. This is an injustice. This is a broken system. And this is antithetical to our values as people of faith who believe in a fair and just world.”

The Penny for Pinellas tax, which was initially approved in 1989, is a one percent sales tax paid by everyone who spends money in Pinellas County.

It was designed to help support the county's infrastructure, including streets and roads, bridges, stormwater system upgrades, parks and recreation centers, and public facilities, such as affordable housing.

However, that hasn’t been the case, according to Hall-Perkins — at least when it involves housing.

“I would say that particularly the Washington Avenue project, a housing development in Clearwater, only has 17 units that are really affordable for those families making 80 percent AMI or below, and they get $5.6 million,” he said.

“That is unprecedented. That's gross use of that money that could have been spent elsewhere.”

While many of the projects such as the construction of the Bayside Bridge and the Pinellas Trail have been successful, the coalition still feels affordable housing needs to be the main focus.

FAST volunteer Kitty Rawson gave a breakdown of how many of the mixed-income housing projects the taxes have supported are truly considered affordable.

“The Commission spent $9.6 million of affordable housing funds to subsidize 586 housing units of which only 13%, 77 units, will be affordable. We were in disbelief after working with them and securing their promise in front of 2,500 people and putting it in writing,” said Rawson.

County officials told the Tampa Bay Times they did not break their promises.

The Times reports Commission Chair Dave Eggers said they must leverage affordable housing in mixed-income projects so that taxpayers are not subsidizing the entire project.

“What we’re trying to do is get that development mindset to think differently and it’s not easy to shift that around,” Eggers said. “But we see it changing every time we go back to the market.”

That’s not good enough for FAST members.

“The commissioners are not prioritizing people who are struggling with housing,” said Rawson. “We are talking about housing for our nurses, our firefighters, our teachers, our police officers, grocery store workers, housekeepers, and so many others.”

Devonta Davis is the WUSF Noble Radio News Intern for the spring 2021 semester.
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