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Faith-based Pinellas group gets results

It's not a sign you see often these days: three bedrooms starting at $850 a month.

The sign advertises the newly completed Lakeview Villas, a dusty, pink concrete 80-unit apartment building on 28th Street in Lealman. The development was funded with help from a county trust fund set aside for affordable housing.

But behind the scenes, a local faith-based organization played a big role in helping seal the deal.

It was 2006. Commissioners were grappling with property tax cuts and budget shortfalls. The group, Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, stepped forward to demand that money for affordable housing be protected.

"They came in during the start of the property tax revolution & half of the room were frustrated businesses and second home owners who were demanding tax relief," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who was board chairman at the time. "And the other half were a couple of busloads of people saying, 'Don't forget about affordable housing.' "

The commission set aside $10-million for the trust fund, which made the $3-million loan to the developers of Lakeview Villas possible.

FAST, a 32-congregation-strong organization, has increasingly become a player on the local political landscape. For the past four years, the burgeoning group has continued to take on social justice issues.

Their methods include holding public officials accountable in public settings and staying vocal. Their power is in numbers.

Instant rally

On Monday, the organization was able to draw more than 2,000 people to its annual public forum at First Baptist of Indian Rocks, remarkable considering the NCAA men's championship game aired that night. The agenda included crime, affordable housing and discipline in schools.

During the meeting, the group asked public officials to commit to FAST initiatives. Members follow up throughout the year with meetings and phone calls.

"We really do get results by communicating on a regular basis," said the Rev. Robert Ward, FAST co-chairman. "We communicate with public officials way before the action and we communicate with them long after the action."

The group drew more than a dozen elected officials to Monday's meeting. Others, including St. Petersburg's mayor and police chief, did not attend because they think the format of the meeting is too confrontational.

Mayor Rick Baker's absence shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of support from the city, said Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis.

"We're not opposing (FAST's goals) at all, we just want an opportunity to speak in more detail about some of the issues that plague us," he said.

FAST's accomplishments include:

• In 2005, the group was vocal about the need for a full day of prekindergarten services for low-income parents. FAST helped secure commitments from the director of the Early Learning coalition to assist with providing funding. During the 2005-2006 school year, 1,327 low-income 4-year-olds in Pinellas were able to attend prekindergarten because of this funding, according to the group.

• FAST advocated for the Metropolitan Planning Organization to create a one-number system for senior transportation. It debuted in March 2006.

• In 2006, the group advocated for a commitment from the county commissioners to support an affordable housing trust fund. Commissioners devoted an initial $10-million and have committed $5-million this budget year. "They were quite supportive in their outreach to a broad spectrum of the community to publicize the issues," Bruce Bussey, with Pinellas County Community Development, said about FAST's help with the housing trust fund.

Modest start

The group began as a small contingent of local ministers talking about how to solve the problems facing their congregations. "They were concerned about issues surrounding affordable housing and helping the needy and the poor," Ward said. "Of course, every pastor that comes on board is really motivated by a biblical mandate."

He referred to stories of Micah and Nehemiah, which both involve holding officials accountable and doing public service.

In each of the 32 FAST congregations, there are designated team members responsible for a network of people. Team members pass along news of causes and events. Each network member is then responsible for bringing three people to events — part of the reason why FAST functions are so well attended, said Ward, the pastor at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.

"Anytime you get 5,000 parishioners involved, they carry a lot of political weight," Welch said. "Even though the tactics are something uncomfortable for elected officials, communication never hurts."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8828.

>>FAST FACTS

About FAST

Founded: 2004.

Membership: 32 member congregations from various denominations representing more than 50,000 people.

How it works: The group performs a "grass roots listening" process in the fall, where they talk with people in small groups about issues. That culminates in an annual assembly of about 700, where members divide into groups to focus on an issue or two. The groups then spend winter and spring doing research to come up with solutions, which are presented to officials at the annual forum.

Funding: Individual congregations pay dues equal to 1 percent of their operating budget. FAST also solicits support from individuals.

Faith-based Pinellas group gets results 04/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 1:48pm]
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