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Rentals, condos could offset housing crisis

The town houses run close together - rows of them, stretching perhaps for blocks. And there are thousands of apartments, more densely packed than ever. Their numbers rise every year as the city grows more crowded.

This is not a picture of New York City today.

It is one vision of St. Petersburg tomorrow.

A special task force, meeting to find solutions to the city's housing crisis, has concluded that the city must concentrate on developing apartments and condominiums if it is to house all of the new residents it expects to attract in the next decade.

St. Petersburg will need 22,000 new housing units by the year 2000, according to a preliminary version of the task force report released Thursday.

The report calls for housing to be packed more tightly than current laws allow into what little land is left in Florida's fourth-largest city. The city itself is at the tip of Florida's most densely populated county.

Of the 22,000 units, about 14,500 should be town homes or condominiums and about 6,000 should be "garden apartments" with plenty of amenities, the report said.

Relatively few new dwellings - about 1,800 - should be single-family homes. And those should contain at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms, the report said.

Realtors, developers and city officials have said that St. Petersburg has far too many of the two-bedroom bungalows that were built in the 1950s and '60s for retirees. Many of those homes are said to be deteriorating and too small for today's market.

Officials say St. Petersburg's housing shortage is one of the reasons the city is having difficulties balancing budgets. Thus, the search for solutions will be "the No. 1 activity" at City Hall this year, said City Manager Robert Obering.

Housing values in St. Petersburg have grown so slowly that they have started to reduce the city's income. Already, officials say, the problem has contributed to tax increases and cuts in government service. According to Thursday's housing report, it also threatens to slow the

multimillion-dollar downtown redevelopment efforts designed to boost the city's economy.

"Without housing, we're not going to get the jobs," Paul Reilly, chairman of the task force, told members of the City Council on Thursday. "Without jobs, there's no demand for housing. Without demand for housing, the housing tax base is going to fall, and we're really in a circle.

"If we let that circle continue, we're going to have a great economic cost. We're going to continue looking at having budget problems. We're going to have shrinking (property) values. We're going to have to be cutting city services. We're really going to get into a spot we don't want to get into in this community."

The report said demands for housing will come from an estimated 63,000 new jobs over the next 10 years in downtown and the Gateway area in far northern St. Petersburg. The city should plan to "capture" about 35,000 of those employees as residents, and most of them will have incomes of about $30,000 or below, the report said.

Reilly told city officials that they need to consider changes in zoning and building codes to encourage the construction of new dwellings and the rehabilitation of older ones. He also said the city gradually could improve its housing stock by catering to neighborhoods.

For example, some areas that are severely deteriorated would only be dragged down further by rigorous code inspections, while neighborhoods on the edge of decay could benefit from it, he said.

The task force report urges the city to devise incentives and financing programs and reduce red tape to allow developers to build housing that new residents could afford.

At present, many areas of St. Petersburg are too expensive to build in because of rising land prices, Reilly said.

The city needs to invent programs that will "let the free market come in and take over the job," Reilly said. "We need to stop that (downward) spiral by attacking the housing market."

The task force will issue its final report in late March.