Pinellas County's affordable housing push may get teeth

Build affordable housing into your projects or help create it someplace else.

That's the choice Pinellas County leaders hope to give developers who want to do business here.

The goal is to create homes and apartments within the reach of teachers, police officers, firefighters and others who have increasingly felt priced out of Pinellas County. To do it, county officials have been working on an "inclusionary housing" ordinance for three years.

Pinellas would be the first government in the Tampa Bay area to pass such an ordinance, though similar laws exist in a handful of Florida cities and counties.

The ordinance would be the centerpiece of the county's affordable housing effort. Already in place are a $6.3-million trust fund and land bank used to spur construction of housing available at below-market cost.

The new rules would apply countywide, but cities could opt out. That concerns proponents, who say the inclusionary housing rules — which will be discussed at the first of two public hearings June 17 — would be most effective if all governments in Pinellas take part.

The worry is that developers could divide and conquer, funneling their projects into communities that opt out. So county commissioners have visited with municipal leaders since March, urging them to get on board and create a united front.

"We are trying to encourage them to stay in and work with this," County Commissioner Karen Seel said, "because every city from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs to Clearwater has public employees and certainly citizens that could use this help."

Results have been mixed. Some municipal leaders are eager to take part. Others fear county rules dictating growth in their communities. Developers say the ordinance goes too far.

"It's ridiculous," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. "It is an extreme leftist approach to meeting community needs."

The ordinance would apply to developments of 20 dwellings or more. Up to 15 percent of the units would have to be set aside at below-market rates.

In exchange, developers would be entitled to density bonuses of up to 50 percent, meaning they could build more dwellings than zoning laws normally allow.

Developers could request to build their affordable units smaller and with fewer amenities than their market-rate neighbors.

If the required number of units could not be integrated into the proposed project, developers would have options. They could build the units elsewhere in Pinellas, donate land for construction of affordable housing or pay into the trust fund.

"We are making an adjustment to the market; there is no way around that," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "But when you look at the overall economy, it makes sense to have housing in Pinellas County that the people working in Pinellas County can afford."

Through subsidizing the work of private developers via the housing trust fund, the county has created 136 affordable housing units since 2006. Another 90 units are in the pipeline. The land bank has yet to produce any projects.

Proponents say those numbers do not go far enough. They argue that although housing prices have dropped since the county began looking at the issue seriously in 2005, wages have remained stagnant and many residents, especially those in the service sector, remain priced out of the housing stock.

"We have people that work for this city who can't afford to live in this county anymore," said Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, who believes her city should take part in the program. "It should be a countywide thing."

But Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris worries that, because her city still has open land, developers might turn her town into a repository for affordable housing projects.

"We feel this is an impediment to our home rule," she said. "I think it needs to be a city's decision what it looks like."

Like the county and other municipal governments, St. Petersburg has its own voluntary affordable housing incentives. It allows developers to get density bonuses and other kinds of regulatory relief by agreeing to build affordable housing.

St. Petersburg's voluntary model is starting to show some promising results, city officials said. So they're unwilling to abandon their efforts and embrace the county's ordinance.

"Right now we are just kind of holding out and seeing how ours works," said City Council member Jeff Danner. "And certainly if it doesn't work out, we could consider the county's mandatory ordinance if it gets more bang for the buck."

Developers prefer the voluntary model, but skeptics say years of offering affordable housing incentives at the local level have produced too few homes.

Parts of Sarasota and St. Lucie counties — as well as Tallahassee, Davie, Coconut Creek and Palm Beach County — all have mandatory inclusionary housing ordinances, said Jaimie Ross, affordable housing director of the 1000 Friends of Florida.

"If your goal is to ensure that whenever market-rate housing is getting built, affordable housing is getting built," Ross said, "you would need a mandatory ordinance."

Though county leaders like Seel and Welch would rather see the proposed ordinance effective across Pinellas, they say the issue is so important that even if all 24 cities in Pinellas back out, they plan to move ahead.

That would make the ordinance effective only in unincorporated Pinellas.

"Developers that are willing to work with us," Welch said, "those are the developers that are going to be able to develop in the unincorporated area."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or

(727) 445-4166.

>>IF YOU GO

To learn more

A public forum on Pinellas County's proposed inclusionary zoning ordinance will be held 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 4 at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. The public is invited, and legal experts, developers, planners and advocates for affordable housing are expected to attend.

Pinellas County's affordable housing push may get teeth 05/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 1:39pm]

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