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St. Petersburg affordable housing study explores rent control, zoning measures

Harvard Kennedy School students studied affordable housing for Mayor Ken Welch’s transition team.
The for rent sign in front of a home in the 1100 block of 8th Street N. on Thursday, Feb. 10 in St. Petersburg.
The for rent sign in front of a home in the 1100 block of 8th Street N. on Thursday, Feb. 10 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 15|Updated Feb. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — Three Harvard University students dug deep into St. Petersburg’s affordable housing crisis and examined the pros and cons of rent control, zoning changes meant to encourage multifamily housing in residential neighborhoods and land banking.

St. Petersburg native Larisa Barreto along with Bethany Kirkpatrick and Brandon McGhee, who are part of a program under the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, worked with Mayor Ken Welch’s administration. They spent three weeks interviewing local stakeholders and poring over census and property appraiser data. The report was released Tuesday morning.

In a letter to residents, Welch said the city has 740 affordable and workforce housing units in various phases of development, from permitted to already constructed. But, he said, the work must continue.

“And with this valuable information from the Harvard-Kennedy team of students, it will continue,” he wrote. “I’m confident this study will provide valuable tools to identify new, innovative solutions as we continue our quest to achieve intentional equity through informed decision-making.”

The study began by outlining the state of housing in St. Petersburg. It found that the prevalence of month-to-month leases made it easy for landlords to sharply hike rents because of a low supply.

Corporate investor purchases grew 79 percent from 2020 to 2021, and 530 percent since 2011, “calling into question who is in control of the housing supply,” the study read. More than three-quarters of those investors are within Florida.

A far greater percentage of low-income renters are spending more on housing than low-income homeowners are paying on their mortgages.

The students compared St. Petersburg to three cities similar in size and proximity to the ocean to study their affordable housing initiatives: Orlando, which is governed by the same legislative constraints; Chula Vista, Calif., where rent control is allowed; and Norfolk, Va., where rent control is preempted by state law.

Related: St. Pete City Council members fear ‘extremely likely’ lawsuits over rent control

Kirkpatrick said that rent control in California is connected to the consumer price index and inflation. Landlords can only raise rents with a “fair return” standard, which ensures they get a fair return on their investment to cover operating costs. The study also found that most places with rent control operate on a tenant-initiated complaint system.

Kirkpatrick said the majority of renters in Chula Vista are covered by some kind of rent stabilization or rent control, which has been successful at preventing evictions. But Chula Vista doesn’t have the limited land supply that exists in St. Petersburg.

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“If the goal is to protect tenants from evictions through rising rental prices, then it’s been pretty successful in a 1-to-1 comparison kind of way,” Kirkpatrick said. “If we’re concerned about the supply of rentals available, then it isn’t a perfect comparison.”

The study considered alternatives to rent stabilization, like providing incentives to landlords to lower rent, creating a public tracker of affordable housing initiatives and creating programs for child care, transportation, health care and food.

According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser records, the city of St. Petersburg purchased 23 residential units from 2011 to 2021, accounting for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of 23,341 total residential sales. The study said the city could use that land for affordable housing.

While upzoning, or creating denser construction, could increase housing supply, slow displacement and reduce carbon footprint by being located near public transit areas, the study pointed out that it doesn’t necessarily translate to developers taking advantage of the opportunity, as new market-rate housing is likely to be unaffordable to low-income families.

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