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St. Petersburg's middle-class housing dilemma may have an answer: skinny homes

Two of the “skinny” homes fit on one lot, with alley access in the back for off-street parking.
Published Mar. 19, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — For years, downtown boosters, the chamber of commerce and City Hall have complained about the shortage of middle-class family housing in the city.

They said there just aren't enough affordable three-bedroom, two-bath options.

So maybe it's time, city planners believe, to slim down.

Enter "skinny homes." It's a new name for an old concept found in many other cities like Chicago, Charleston, New Orleans and Nashville. Think of a two-story gussied-up shotgun house.

Old Town in Key West is full of them. Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood has a variant: the camel back bungalow.

Skinny homes are narrow (about 15 to 21 feet wide), are usually two stories and have narrow side yards and are squeezed onto slim lots.

That means the porches almost come up to the sidewalk. They would need to have access to an alley in the back because the frontage of the property is taken up by the house, leaving little room for a driveway.

The upside to building skinny houses, according to a recent presentation to the St. Petersburg City Council, is that two homes can be built on a standard city lot. That would create a cheaper stock of housing for potential buyers who can't afford to pay $400,000 and up for new homes of similar size. The idea would also allow developers to increase their profits.

As the city's high-end condo and apartment market continues to sizzle, planners said, St. Petersburg needs housing that will attract middle-class homeowners if it wants to thrive.

"It's one of the issues that's holding us back as a city," said Shaun Amarnani, the city's neighborhood economic development manager.

Amarnani held a presentation for the City Council's Housing Committee last month. The idea raised the political antenna of several council members sensitive to recent resident complaints about dividing up lots to pack in more housing.

There were also concerns that skinny homes could raise the spectre of gentrification. It could be seen as a way to increase the displacement of low-income residents from existing homes, especially from Midtown.

"Are we going to get neighborhood pushback?" asked council member Charlie Gerdes, noting that Monticello and Allendale residents successfully petitioned the council recently to prohibit "lot-splitting."

Council member Amy Foster pointed out that, although the new zoning category that would be created for skinny homes wouldn't be automatically imposed on neighborhoods, a developer could request the zoning without neighborhood support.

Any zoning change application above 10 acres requires two public hearings and notification of county and state authorities. But often times residents only became aware of what they may consider drastic changes to their neighborhoods after the fact.

"Later, they're going to come to us and say, 'You've gentrified our area,' " Foster said.

Derek Kilborn, the city's manager of urban planning and historic preservation, said planning staff would not look favorably on any application that didn't have neighborhood support.

But City Council member Karl Nurse disagreed with those concerns. He said skinny homes, which would be between 1,400 to 2,200 square feet, aren't the tip of the gentrification spear. He thinks that kind of new development would benefit the Midtown area, which has a plethora of vacant lots.

"This creates an avenue that will naturally lead to more moderate-sized houses," Nurse said.

Midtown residents worried about gentrification should look at Bartlett Park, Nurse said, where builders are erecting $400,000 homes of 3,000 square feet or more.

"Some of the folks in the adjoining neighborhoods are a little rattled by that," he said.

If the city's zoning code isn't modified to allow for skinny houses, Nurse said, builders will just keep building bigger and pricier.

The committee voted unanimously Feb. 16 to tentatively schedule an April workshop on the idea with the Development Review Commission, a board that vets zoning matters.

If it makes it past the DRC, the skinny homes concept would proceed to City Council, which would hold a public hearing before voting to amend the city's zoning code.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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