St. Petersburg's plan for affordable housing in a mostly single-family neighborhood angers residents

An exterior view of the Grace Connection Church, 635 64th St. S, in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg's plans to buy a church near Bear Creek for affordable housing is causing consternation among neighborhood residents. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
An exterior view of the Grace Connection Church, 635 64th St. S, in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg's plans to buy a church near Bear Creek for affordable housing is causing consternation among neighborhood residents. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's plan to buy almost 5 acres for an affordable housing development near Bear Creek is causing consternation among the proposed project's neighbors.

City Council member Charlie Gerdes, who represents the area, felt their ire Tuesday at a meeting called to share details about the plan to buy Grace Connection Church, at 635 64th St. S.

At times the three-hour session felt like a raucous political rally, with hecklers yelling from the standing-room only crowd of about 500 people.

Those who filled the church sanctuary were impatient with Gerdes, who tried to explain that he could not directly address the proposal to buy the property, since he would have to vote on it. Gerdes, who left after opening the meeting, told the crowd he was just there to explain the city's commitment to solving its affordable housing crisis.

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Robert Gerdes, the city's neighborhood affairs administrator and the council member's brother, and other city staff remained to give specific information about the plan.

Speakers often interrupted their presentations. Some later lined up to voice opinions and ask questions. The consensus was that the project would alter the character of the neighborhood, hurt property values and even harm the environment. One man suggested that the city should fix the roads and infrastructure and hire more police in poor areas. A woman said she was ashamed of her neighbors' response.

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Under the proposed plan, the city would buy the property for $1.8 million and demolish the church and other buildings for a maximum of 86 affordable and workforce housing units. Rob Gerdes said money to buy the land will come from $15 million in Penny for Pinellas funds that have been earmarked for land acquisition for affordable housing. The Grace Connection Church acquisition would be the first of other land buys across the city, Gerdes said.

He added that the city will lease the church property to a developer to build and manage the project, which could rise from two to four stories. Finalizing the deal will take about nine months. The city can terminate the contract during that period without penalty, he said. The contract to acquire the land will go before the City Council for approval on May 16.

The development will require other approvals in coming months, including a zoning change. Also ahead will be a request for proposals and selection of a developer.

We're really at the beginning of this," Gerdes said.

Prospective renters could qualify for the new housing with 120 percent of the area median income and below. A household of three making 100 percent of the area median income would have an annual income of $55,000 and qualify to live in the development, Gerdes said. Rent would be capped at 30 percent of a household's monthly gross income. He said about 40 percent of the city's households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

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Denise Deja, with the New Deal for St. Pete coalition, was among those who lined up to speak Tuesday. She doesn't live in the neighborhood, but is on the coalition's affordable housing team.

"I think the biggest misconception about the term affordable housing is that the type of people are going to be ruffians. They are going to be gang members. It's going to be subsidized housing and projects," she told the Tampa Bay Times.

"The type of people that live there are teachers. They're tech people, police officers, your waiters and waitresses downtown that serve you your food, your cashiers at Publix. They're normal, everyday people, but because rents are so high all over the city, they can't afford to rent anywhere...without having two jobs."

Plans for the church property, which borders an unincorporated area of Pinellas County, drew residents from those neighborhoods, who were upset to learn that they may not be able to convey their objections at city hearings to approve the project.

Mimmi Hammenbeck, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years, said she is not happy with the city's plans.

"We don't have the infrastructure in that neighborhood at all. I am not against affordable housing. (And) just how the whole neighborhood is set up, there are no grocery stores within a mile, so it's a food desert," she told the Times.

"There's no public transportation and then we have this (Pinellas) trail. How is that going to be impacted? What about the creek? We have wildlife there. It's not just our neighborhood that is going to be impacted, it's going to be everybody who is going to be using the trail."

Pastor Tim Kelley told the crowd that his congregation has been trying to sell its property for the past two years. Six churches looked at it, but were discouraged by the repairs that would be needed, he said.

"The city of St. Petersburg was the only one that came within an inch of an offer," he said.

Kelley said his congregation has spent about $200,000 to upgrade the property. Other necessary repairs could cost another $270,000, he said.

In recent months, the property has become even more of a financial liability, because of code citations, including those resulting from settling problems. James Corbett, the city's director of codes compliance assistance, said fines will begin to accrue at $100 a day on May 23.

Kelley has heard from neighbors, who are afraid of plummeting property values if his property becomes an affordable housing complex. "I don't know how much it would impact the real estate. There is a trailer park right adjacent to the property. It's not a high-end trailer park," he said.

"If we don't sell it to the city, it goes back on sale the next day. I don't see what other options we have."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.