There are many ways to tackle the issue of affordable housing, and St. Petersburg has come up with an innovative approach through a number of zoning and planning changes the City Council has quietly approved over the last few months. The changes aim to lessen restrictions for developers, from big buildings to small garage apartments, making it easier to add more density in residential areas. This is an important step in shaping the future with an eye toward creating housing options for all of the city’s residents, not just the wealthiest ones.
The city’s primary goal is to create flexibility in development rules where there previously wasn’t any. In the past, homeowners were stifled by restrictions if they wanted to build a garage apartment on their property: there was a 5,800 sq. ft. lot requirement and minimum 375 sq. ft. apartment size requirement. But in September, the City Council voted to change those rules to allow a smaller lot requirement and no minimum size requirement for apartments. Now apartments in downtown also no longer have to supply a parking space per apartment if the unit is equal to or smaller than 750 sq. ft. And the council recently approved a new neighborhood traditional mixed residential zoning category that allows for the development of multifamily buildings, like duplexes and triplexes, in some traditionally residential areas.
This final strategy hearkens back to St. Petersburg’s history. Some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, like Kenwood and the Old Northeast, from their outset combined traditional suburban houses with triplexes, fourplexes and even small apartment buildings with between 16 to 20 units. That all changed in 1977, when St. Petersburg’s city code began to clearly distinguish between single-family neighborhoods and urban areas. But now the city has made affordable housing a priority with its lofty 10-year plan, and these recent changes are in step with those goals.
While the changes are overall positive, some have the potential to create unintended consequences. In an urban area like downtown, the parking requirement has discouraged some developers from building more one-bedroom apartments, especially when one parking space can cost roughly $24,000. But who will rent an apartment in downtown without the guarantee of a place to park? City officials say these buildings will market to residents without cars. That’s optimistic at the moment. There’s still no robust public transit system and many major areas are not walkable from downtown. A future where many residents can live downtown without a car may be attractive, but it is still a goal rather than reality.
The next year will show how effective these changes are in practice. How many residents will take advantage of them? Will developers create more one-bedroom units without the parking requirement? Will these corridors become a viable way to mingle houses with multifamily buildings? The city of St. Petersburg is wisely experimenting with a variety of ways to create more affordable housing, and those experiments should continue both downtown and in the neighborhoods.
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