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All mayor candidates but Jamie Bennett answer affordable-housing survey

St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett has positioned himself as one of the most celebrated advocates for low-income housing and the homeless in local government.

But Bennett, a former chairman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network, is the only mayoral candidate who declined to directly answer an affordable-housing survey distributed by a local faith-based activist group, Faith and Action for Strength Together.

Bennett insisted Tuesday that he is a strong supporter of affordable housing. "I am committed to housing people," he said.

The Pinellas County coalition of 35 congregations distributed the candidates' answers to its housing survey during a meeting Monday night.

The survey asked whether candidates would commit to a net increase of 1,138 affordable housing units by 2010, a pledge that could be difficult to meet because of a lull in property development and declining budget dollars. The survey also asked the candidates whether they would make housing the poor a priority.

The survey required candidates to respond with "yes" or "no" answers.

Of the nine candidates for mayor, seven answered both questions with a yes. Most did not elaborate. They were former council members Bill Foster, Kathleen Ford and Larry Williams, homeless advocate Paul Congemi, political activist Alex Haak, minister Sharon Russ and corporate executive Deveron Gibbons.

Congemi offered the most specific solution to the area's housing woes. He said he would donate $25,000 of his mayoral salary to organizations that help the poor.

Business executive Scott Wagman said yes to the 1,138 housing units, but declined to directly answer the second, broader question about general support for affordable housing.

"This one is very difficult," he wrote. "It most likely cannot be accomplished in a single family home environment, but possibly in a multi family mode. It is a priority to work towards giving housing opportunities for all lower income residents."

Bennett, however, did not directly answer either question. Instead, he provided written comments.

"I am committed through our budget process to provide affordable housing whenever and wherever possible," he wrote as his response to the question on 1,138 new affordable housing units.

Asked about housing for Pinellas County's poorest residents, he wrote, "I support Pinellas Hope and housing the homeless."

Bennett said Tuesday that he had concerns about the specificity of the questions.

"We don't live in a yes or no world," he said. "You are putting random numbers out there and with the budgetary condition that we are in, no one can commit to such numbers."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

fast facts

The two questions

Faith and Action for Strength Together, a Pinellas coalition of 35 congregations, recently sent an affordable-housing survey to candidates for St. Petersburg mayor. The group distributed the answers to their members this week. The questions:

• In 2007, the city of St. Petersburg committed to create a net increase of 1,138 units of affordable housing for households making less than 80% of the area median income by 2010. If elected as mayor, would you work to see that the city upholds this commitment? *

• Pinellas Hope has provided shelter for many homeless citizens in our county and is developing programs to help these people transition into permanent housing. If elected as mayor, would you make it a priority to create affordable housing for households making 50% of the area median income and below?

* City Hall officials said they committed to more affordable units in the city's five-year housing plan created in 2005.

All mayor candidates but Jamie Bennett answer affordable-housing survey 04/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:31pm]
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