CLEARWATER — With home prices falling, just how aggressive should county leaders be in creating affordable housing?
That question lingers over two decisions the County Commission will make Tuesday: whether to require developers in unincorporated Pinellas to include reduced cost units in their projects and whether to move ahead with the Bayside Reserves affordable housing development near Bayside Bridge.
David Waddell helps lead the effort against Bayside Reserves, which calls for 209 apartments — at least 42 of them available at below market rates — to be built near the water just west of the bridge's southern end.
Waddell, 50, has organized hundreds of nearby residents who oppose the project. In a deflated housing market, the development is unnecessary, he argues, and so is requiring developers to include affordable units in what they build.
"The need isn't there as it once was," he said. "We've got an inventory of unsold homes."
To develop the new rule, the county relied on a study that used housing data from 2005, the height of the market. In December of that year, the median home price in the county reached $268,000, according to the Pinellas Realtor Organization. The average monthly median price so far this year has been $176,000.
Rental rates, however, have risen, going from an average $766 a month in 2005 to $898 a month this year, according to TRIAD Research & Consulting, a Tampa business that studies the region's rental market.
Once a backer of requiring developers to include affordable units in their projects, County Commissioner Susan Latvala echoed Waddell, saying there is a glut of inexpensive housing at the moment. Plus, she said, Pinellas cities have been unwilling to sign on, meaning the rule's impact would be limited to unincorporated areas.
"It's going to be thoroughly vetted" at Tuesday's commission meeting, Latvala said of the proposed rule. "But I don't think it's going to go anywhere and I don't think it should."
The proposal would apply only to developments of 20 units or more. Up to 20 percent of the units in a given project 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 permit.
County Commissioner Ken Welch said that although the housing market has slumped, the cost to rent has not, and more people now than three years ago are struggling to stay afloat economically.
He fears that if the rule is not approved and the market begins to heat up, the county could be behind the curve.
"I still believe there is an affordability gap," Welch said. "And this is a long-term strategy."
For Waddell and others fighting Bayside Reserves, it's difficult to swallow a continued push for affordable housing. The Pinellas Planning Council, an advisory body, recently sided with Waddell, saying the benefits of Bayside Reserves' 42 affordable units were outweighed by its impact on the neighborhood.
Due to the densities and building heights involved, the project " just ends up being incompatible with that location," said council executive director David Healey.
But Latvala, despite her opposition to requiring developers to build affordable units into their projects, is keen on Bayside Reserves.
For her, the difference is that the rule would be mandatory, while Bayside involves a private developer who has stepped forward freely.
"If somebody wants to come to us and build an affordable housing project," Latvala said, "why say no?"
Waddell believes that county leaders are keen to support Bayside chiefly because beginning three years ago, before the market downturn, a public commitment was made on the issue of affordable housing.
"This is one of their keystone projects," he said of Bayside. "They are moving forward because they have created this agenda and there's no way for them to gracefully acknowledge that they are wrong."
For Welch, who like Latvala supports the project, unwarranted fear of crime and violence is behind much of the opposition. In truth, he said, Bayside will provide housing to folks central to making the local economy work.
And backing down now just because the market has gone slack does nothing to remedy a problem he believes is still quite real.
"If at every turn we are not going to build affordable housing for one reason or another," he said, "then what have we done?"
Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or 445-4166.