Before the advent of public sewer and water systems, America’s cities struggled to solve problems we rarely think about today. Excrement flowed through the streets of Manhattan while cholera and typhoid flourished. The wealthy had plumbing and drank water provided by private companies, but the poor and working class were left to use chamber pots and drink well water of dubious quality. Finally, in the 1840s after a cholera outbreak, New York piped clean water into the city and constructed its municipal sewer system. These investments in public infrastructure were costly, but essential to the functioning and health of the city.
Today we face a similar need for public investment in Tampa Bay. The housing crisis is out of control. According to a study released by the city of St Petersburg, almost half of all renters in the city were spending a burdensome amount on housing in 2020. Things have gotten worse since then; from 2021-2022, rental prices are up 31.1% according to Realtor.com.
The effects are far reaching. Residents are being rapidly displaced; the city’s African American population has decreased by more than 4,200 from 2010 to 2020. According to the National Institute of Health, poor housing conditions are associated with respiratory infections, asthma, mental health conditions, etc., showing surprising parallels with New York in the days before modern water infrastructure.
St. Petersburg has been making a commendable effort to create affordable housing, by using public dollars to lure private investors into keeping units affordable, but this is inadequate and short sighted. We aren’t creating enough apartments to address the problem, while the ones created are only “affordable” for a negotiated length of time.
The core problem is the private housing market, which is not designed to provide housing, but to provide profits to shareholders. Developers receive subsidies on “workforce” units rented to households that make 120% of the area median income, even though building these units is already profitable without the subsidy. To put it bluntly, we are giving away tax dollars to increase the profits of private companies.
The good news is that the same solution that worked for water in the 1840s still works today. Housing should be treated as a public utility, built and maintained by the city, available to everyone, and paid for using service fees (rents). As radical as the idea may seem, it’s exactly what cities with the most stable housing markets in the world are doing. In Vienna, Austria, 60% of residents live in city-owned, mixed income “social housing.” Rent is charged based on ability to pay, so no one is overburdened. The rent collected pays for and maintains the buildings. In the United States, Montgomery County in Maryland responded to its housing crisis by building social housing, recently completing 731 units.
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Private developers can’t compete with the advantages cities have in building housing. Cities have access to financing at low rates through municipal bonds, they can eliminate land cost by building on city-owned land, and they don’t have to pay themselves property taxes. Crucially, social housing’s purpose is to provide housing, completely removing profit from the equation. Rents under these conditions would be far lower than anything being built now. Additionally, cities can choose higher environmental and labor standards for social housing, and retail space can be reserved for small and minority owned local businesses.
Creating enough social housing to stabilize our current housing market will take time. We’ll need to continue instituting reforms that protect tenants, but social housing provides a realistic and fiscally responsible path towards a permanent solution to the crisis. Residents living in social housing can thrive after being relieved from cost burden, enjoying life, and saving money for things like vacations, retirement, or even purchasing a home.
We have an opportunity to chart a new path forward in St Petersburg. As the city considers plans for the Gas Plant District, now is the time to make decisions around housing to benefit our residents. Hopefully, years from now St. Petersburg residents will take for granted the stability and good health provided by social housing as a public utility, the way we take for granted the plumbing and clean water we rely on every day.
Richie Floyd represents District 8 on the St. Petersburg City Council.