Few St. Petersburg employees qualify for city rental assistance program

The program for employees required to live in the city only served 23 people.
Ron Overing shelves books while working at the Mirror Lake Community Library. Living in St. Petersburg is a requirement for some city workers but cost of living is becoming unattainable. Overing had to apply for a residency waiver to live outside the city.
Ron Overing shelves books while working at the Mirror Lake Community Library. Living in St. Petersburg is a requirement for some city workers but cost of living is becoming unattainable. Overing had to apply for a residency waiver to live outside the city. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published June 8|Updated June 8

ST. PETERSBURG — A rental assistance program created to help certain low-wage city employees who are required to live in the city but struggle to afford it has only served 23 employees.

After the City Council approved the program last summer, it launched in October with a $1.47 million budget. It was supposed to help up to 253 employees under the residency requirement. But since then, just 11.5% of that funding has been committed to the employees it was supposed to help.

“That’s a huge delta,” said City Council member Richie Floyd.

On Thursday, city staff and City Council members brainstormed changes to help out more employees. The program qualifies employees based on what kind of job they have, but they also can’t make more than $48,000 annually. Employee households cannot make more than 120% of the area median income, or $83,520 for a family of two, and provide a lease.

That disqualified 54 employees who double-up on their housing or live with family or without a lease, said Housing and Neighborhood Services Administrator Amy Foster. She said one employee was rejected for living with their grandmother without a lease and another was ineligible because their household income was over the threshold with a 19-year-old stepchild.

The city pays the difference between the employee’s monthly rent and 30% of their gross household income — which is considered “rent burdened” based on federal standards. Foster said one employee chose not to continue with the program after they figured out they would only receive $6.60 a month. Another employee became ineligible after a promotion.

Plus, employees must take three classes within eight months as part of a financial literacy program. Employees need to reapply at eight months and 16 months for continued assistance. The program was created to give up to $500 a month over a two-year period to qualified employees. About eight months later, the average payment is $324.

Cricket Brehm, a water resources worker who serves as the highest elected union official in the city, said he wasn’t involved in developing the program. He said only about four types of jobs are eligible now and some workers making $18 an hour wouldn’t qualify.

“The majority of people are just like, ‘For $300 a month, I’ll just get a second job. I don’t want to go through all of this. I don’t want my landlord to know I need assistance for my rent,’” Brehm said. “So they just back away from it.”

By running employees’ addresses through property appraiser records, Foster found that, of the 253 city employees eligible based on their jobs or wages, 87 rent single-family homes or apartments and appear to qualify for the program. At least 25 live outside city limits, possibly on a residency waiver, 61 own their homes and eight had unidentified addresses due to only providing a post office box.

Some City Council members were in favor of raising the income requirement and exempting young adults from factoring into the household income, but keeping the overall 120% household cap. Floyd suggested lowering the “rent burden” threshold.

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“It seems to me like the easiest way to do it would be to figure out what the median income is for somebody to be able to live in St. Pete and then raise all the pay grades up to that,” Brehm said. “Otherwise they’re saying some of these jobs, we don’t need people to do them unless they have wealthy parents.”

Certain employees are under a residency requirement due to a rule the workers union sought in the 1990s. The city at the time seldom hired Black residents, instead employing older white workers who lived outside of city limits. The rule was meant to promote hiring more people who lived within city boundaries, creating greater opportunity for minorities to land a city job.

City Council members did not consider getting rid of the residency requirement. City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard asked if the city could also help those employees who own homes with rising insurance costs.

“The whole point is that they live in the city,” she said. “It’s a driver for people to be able to live in our city.”

This year, $250,000 was taken from the rental assistance program for rebates for homeowners to rehab affordable housing. Foster said the program is fully funded for next year.