The question for the candidates was simple: What can St. Petersburg's mayor do to improve severely depressed housing values in Midtown?
Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman both talked about chasing grants to improve the struggling area, which stretches from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S and Fourth Street to 34th Street.
Kriseman credited Tampa for successfully raking in federal dollars for "affordable housing initiatives." Foster said Tampa gets more because "they probably need the money more."
"Tampa got more money because they scored higher on the blight scoring system, so they've got a much bigger problem than we do," Foster said.
Intrigued by Foster's claim, we decided to investigate how the cities compare in terms of a "blight scoring system" and if Tampa indeed is worse off when compared with St. Petersburg.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awards billions of dollars in grants to cities, counties and states each year. Some of the awards are known as "entitlement grants," based on formulas. Others are competitive, based on who has the best plan.
In a brief chat, Foster clarified he was talking about a dollar disparity when considering an array of housing and urban improvement grants.
"I tasked my housing department to advise me on how Tampa is getting grant monies that we are coming for," he said. "Their response was, it's based upon a scoring system, and Tampa qualified because they had more issues."
Problem is, a "blight scoring system" does not really exist. A HUD spokesman was perplexed by Foster's comment, saying there's no easy comparative analysis for "blight" between Tampa and St. Petersburg or other cities for that matter.
But for certain grants, cities get the money based on formulas that take into account an area's population, poverty and, in some cases, foreclosure picture.
Foster had city officials answer our follow-ups. Joshua Johnson, director of the housing department, directed us to fiscal year 2012-13 allocations for Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG. Tampa received $2.8 million and St. Petersburg got $1.6 million.
The formula for CDBGs is based on a mix of measures, including population, housing overcrowding, and the extent of residents living in poverty. Tampa exceeds St. Petersburg in all three of those measures, according to HUD data.
Normally, Johnson said, if a city has more people, it also has more people who earn lower incomes. According to 2012 Census estimates, Tampa had 347,645 residents, and St. Petersburg had 246,541. Tampa also had a greater share of residents below the poverty level, at 19.2 percent compared with 15.3 percent in St. Petersburg.
Foster was trying to articulate that HUD looks at the age and condition of a city's housing stock when considering how to award certain money, and "clearly if you're going to look at those two factors, blight is part of that," said Clarence Scott, city leisure and community services administrator.
For instance, the city of St. Petersburg conducted a blight study of the city's Southside area in pushing to declare it a Community Redevelopment Area. The purpose of that study was just to prove the city is deserving, not to compare it to other places. Similarly, Tampa conducted a blight study in 2006 of the Central Park/Ybor neighborhood that later received the Choice Neighborhoods grant.
In 2008, Congress authorized HUD under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act to start the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which provides grants that help states and local governments rehab, resell or demolish foreclosed or abandoned homes. More money was dedicated to the program in the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 Dodd-Frank banking reforms.
Tampa and St. Petersburg each received money for the first and third phases of the program, and Tampa got more — $18.3 million compared with St. Petersburg's $13.2 million. The Tampa Housing Authority received a second, competitive grant of $38 million that the city shared to build low-income housing. St. Petersburg tried to win a second-round grant, but was not chosen. This program distributes money based on the number of home foreclosures, the number of homes financed by a subprime mortgage loan and the number of homes in default.
"Perhaps Foster is simply noting, albeit awkwardly, that you can't fault him for failing to bring in HUD dollars that are based on formulae for which blight and poverty characteristics are key variables," said Elizabeth Strom, a University of South Florida urban planning professor. "But I am not aware of any 'blight scoring system' that would be used across programs."
We rate Foster's claim Mostly False.
Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/florida.