ST. PETERSBURG — It’s not a surprise that everyone agrees the $45 million in federal stimulus funds coming to the city should be spent on making housing more affordable.
Tampa Bay’s rent is rising faster than any other metro area in the nation this year. Affordable housing was the No. 1 ranked problem St. Petersburg residents identified at three recent publicly held workshops on how the city should spend its American Rescue Plan Act funds.
City officials presented those workshop findings at Tuesday’s Affordable Housing and Advisory Committee meeting and Thursday’s City Council meeting. They said a total of 557 people provided rankings, some of which were submitted online.
Of the other four issues officials asked residents to prioritize at the workshops, health and social equity ranked second, infrastructure ranked third, followed by economic recovery and resilience. Public health and safety ranked last.
The city proposed dividing the $45 million, which will be paid out between this summer and summer 2022, proportionally among the categories. They suggested that affordable housing would get the most at $15.1 million, and public health and safety would get $3 million.
That funding includes $1 million for community driven grant proposals for each category. Council member Gina Driscoll suggested combining that funding into one pot.
A list of potential projects for each category could come before council in the next six to eight weeks, said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin. If funding is dedicated to a capital project by 2024, that money must be spent by 2026.
All of the public speakers at the council meeting emphasized how dire the housing situation is in St. Petersburg. Many were community activists who attended the workshops.
“Personally the ARP hearings from a few weeks ago were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Aaron Dietrich, communications services coordinator for SEIU Florida Public Services Union. “Black, white, young, old, man, woman and child began a conversation with each other that was long overdue. It felt like a community again.”
Council member Brandi Gabbard said she would like to see stimulus funding that would be used for physical improvements to public buildings under the public health and safety category go to housing instead.
“If it were up to me, we’d be putting a lot more of this money specifically toward housing,” Gabbard said. “I’m looking at another $3 million that could be going somewhere else, in my opinion.”
Council member Robert Blackmon asked why infrastructure was billed to the public as already having a steady funding source — and how even all of $45 million would pale in comparison to infrastructure needs totaling billions — while the council was set to approve rising water utility rates that same meeting. He has maintained that all of the stimulus should be spent on water, which “doesn’t discriminate.”
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“It’s hard to reconcile,” Blackmon said. “...We say to the public we don’t need money from this pot, and yet later today we’re voting increasing rates. The consistency of our messaging is what I’d like to see worked on.”
Council member Darden Rice said she would like to see a public jobs program that would subsidize employment and provide opportunities for underemployed people to go back to school or earn certificates and additional training. Council chair Ed Montanari said he’d like a program that would incentivize police, firefighters and teachers to buy a home in St. Petersburg.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders suggested that council members already have a list of priorities from their districts to choose projects the stimulus could fund.
“We’ve already presented quite a few items that may fit in these categories that we’ve received those items from listening to our constituents,” she said. “So we’ve already put in some of that work already.”