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Affordable housing is Kriseman’s top priority. Is it getting enough funding?

During a budget hearing two weeks ago, speakers demanded more. St. Petersburg City Council is set to approve the budget on Thursday.
Blue Sky Communities and elected officials, including St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, center, celebrated the groundbreaking of SkyWay Lofts on Wednesday. SkyWay Lofts, an affordable housing development in the Skyway Marina District, will have 65 apartments for low-income families.
Blue Sky Communities and elected officials, including St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, center, celebrated the groundbreaking of SkyWay Lofts on Wednesday. SkyWay Lofts, an affordable housing development in the Skyway Marina District, will have 65 apartments for low-income families. [ JOSH SOLOMON | Times ]
Published Sep. 17, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Affordable housing is listed as the first priority atop Mayor Rick Kriseman’s tentative budget.

The budget allocates about $11.4 million for housing — about half of which is city funds — which includes subsidizing the construction of new units as well as programs that help people stay in their homes by providing rent and mortgage assistance and funds for home improvements. That’s about 6.6 percent of the third priority listed in the budget, public safety, which is set to get nearly $172 million.

The disparity came up at the city’s first budget hearing two weeks ago, when members of the St. Pete Peace Protest, who have held daily protests at City Hall for months and last month demanded a reduction in the police budget and a $20 million investment into affordable housing, implored city council members to do more in the 2021 budget.

“Housing is a crucial, crucial element to safety in our communities," Jabaar Edmond, a community organizer who has marched with the St. Pete protest group and is vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said during the hearing. “Without adequate and affordable housing, there is no safety."

Today, at the city’s second budget hearing, City Council members are set to approve the affordable housing budget, along with the rest of the city’s 2021 fiscal year budget. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

If approved by council members, the operating budget would be more than $672 million. The millage rate would remain steady at $6.755 in tax per $1,000 of assessed, taxable home value. But it would yield the city an additional $13 million in ad valorem tax revenue over last year, because property values have risen.

That would cover projected revenue losses in sales tax and charges for services due to the pandemic. It would also cover raises for city employees, while smaller chunks would go toward youth programs, economic development, the arts, reserves and a $600,000 transfer from the city’s general fund to a housing fund to subsidize the development of affordable housing.

The housing figure, which is higher than last year’s transfer of $250,000, caught the attention of those who spoke at the first budget hearing, who argued it should be higher.

“Knowing the magnitude of the crisis, looking at the amount in the budget that has been allocated and set to be transferred, we don’t think that is sufficient to remedy or address the magnitude of the problem," Brother John Muhammad, the Childs Park Neighborhood Association president, said during the budget meeting.

The $600,000 is one facet of the city’s housing investment. The other portions include $1 million of Penny for Pinellas funds for land acquisition to build affordable housing, plus nearly $4 million from the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which provides loans, affordable housing development subsidies and grants for home improvement and rehabilitation loans.

The nearly $5.6 million in city funds is a larger investment than in recent years, said Rob Gerdes, the city’s neighborhood affairs administrator, and has grown to make up for the lack of funding from the state.

After legislators voted to keep the $340 million Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund intact, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed two-thirds of it, substantially reducing the amount municipalities receive.

The rest of St. Petersburg’s housing budget comes from modest contributions by federal and state housing programs, and a $4.6 million boost from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which is providing assistance for mortgage, rent and utility payments to those who need it due to the pandemic.

Collectively, Kriseman said, it makes for a balanced approach, which includes building new units but also prioritizes keeping people in their homes, and that he’s “pleased” with the numbers.

That said, the mayor and City Council members agree affordable housing deserves more money.

“We can’t solve it all in one year. It’s going to take time. That’s why it’s a 10-year program,” said Kriseman, alluding to his 10-year For All, From All housing plan, which strives to spend $60 million over the next 10 years to build or preserve 2,400 units of multi-family housing, help homeowners stay in their homes and assist low- and moderate-income families with home purchases.

On Wednesday, St. Petersburg moved closer to that goal, when officials broke ground on SkyWay Lofts, an upcoming 65-unit affordable housing complex for low income families in the Skyway Marina District.

But Kriseman’s 10-year plan relies heavily on two funding sources that are in question: The first is a linkage fee, or an impact fee charged to developers, that city officials hoped to implement to generate up to $20 million for affordable housing over the next decade. Lawmakers this year passed a law that took the teeth out of linkage fees, and Gerdes said the city’s linkage fee discussion is on pause.

The second is $15 million in Penny for Pinellas funds spent over 10 years. Penny funds are generated through sales tax, and the pandemic has lowered expectations on the Penny’s return. All of that means the fate of the 10 year plan is unclear.

“We’re sure going to do everything we can to try to keep us on track,” Kriseman said. "But I have to be honest, those things that have been thrown in our way in the path of progress. They make it more challenging.”