ST. PETERSBURG — Diguel Atkins and his family have felt the pressure of trying to find an affordable place to live for as long as he can remember.
Throughout his early childhood, Atkins' mother struggled to find affordable housing in the city. Before he was born, she had to leave her childhood home in the Gas Plant area when the neighborhood was bulldozed to build the Florida Suncoast Dome in the late 80s. In recent years, he's seen his Bartlett Park neighbors lose their homes to foreclosure.
Atkins was one of many residents to address Tuesday's roundtable on affordable housing, his voice rising as he took the podium to address the gathering.
"I'm only 23 years old but I've been watching this for my entire life," he said.
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It was touted as the first such public meeting held in St. Petersburg focused on affordable housing by City Council member Brandi Gabbard. She hosted the event along with two Democratic legislators, State Rep. Ben Diamond and State Sen. Darryl Rouson. Leaders of local real estate groups, housing nonprofits and other organizations were also present.
While affordable housing has been a focus of city and state policymaking for years, Gabbard said the public forum was an attempt to foster an "open, honest conversation" about a problem that's becoming increasingly pronounced in St. Petersburg: residents are running out of housing options they can afford.
Home prices in Tampa Bay have risen steadily for years, growing at a faster rate than wages in the area. Combine that with the fact that the region has the lowest median household income among the nation's largest metro areas and the result is what Diamond called a "perfect storm" creating an affordable housing crisis.
"In our community we really have the perfect combination of challenges," Diamond said. "It's going to require us to work through that at a local level and state level."
The bay area is especially difficult to navigate for first-time home buyers, Rouson said. The number of first-time home buyers in Tampa Bay has remained low and stagnant for decades: In 1987, 30 percent of purchasers were first-time home buyers, while today that figure sits at 34 percent, according to the senator.
Meanwhile, homelessness in Pinellas County has steadily climbed for years. In 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that there were 7,752 homeless people in Pinellas. In 2017, that number reached 11,103 — a 43 percent jump in six years.
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The solution for funding more affordable housing lies with the state, the panel said Tuesday. They pointed to a state trust fund meant to develop affordable housing. But for 12 consecutive years, Florida House Republicans have voted to sweep money from that fund — the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund — into other projects, diverting more than $2 billion away from building more affordable housing, said Diamond.
"It is seen more as a piggybank by leadership and we cannot let this become normalized," Florida Housing Coalition advisor Ben Toro-Spears told the forum. "We are in an active housing crisis now."
But Diamond and Rousson are optimistic that the state legislature might change course in the future. They cited a growing bipartisan acknowledgement that Florida faces an affordable housing crisis. Bipartisan bills moving through the State House and Senate would prevent legislators from raiding the Sadowski fund.
"I think there's an emerging consensus that more needs to be done on the state level to fix affordable housing," Diamond said.
More than 100 people gathered for the forum, filling up the Sunshine Center. Several spoke passionately about the urgency of the problem and pleaded with elected officials to dedicate more energy and resources to the issue.
"This is a very much-needed conversation because the problem of home-ownership is affecting the children in Pinellas County Schools," school board member Rene Flowers said. "Many of those children are homeless or living in cars."
Some in the audience pointed out that the meeting on such an important topic was held at an inopportune time: 10 a.m. on a weekday.
"There are people in the community who don't know about this meeting," Atkins said. "The people who can't afford these houses can't come here because they're working."
Atkins said the quest for affordable housing has shaped his family's lives for decades. His mother grew up in the Laurel Park apartment complex in the historic Gas Plant district, he said. It was supposed to survive the project, but he said in 1989 the city destroyed her family's home to create additional parking for the dome.
He said Bartlett Park is gentrifying, that homes are rising in value, and that in turn is forcing longtime residents out. Foreclosures are becoming more commonplace, he said, and Atkins fears longtime neighborhood residents will be priced out and forced to move, just like his mother had to move her family in the 1980s.
Former city council member Karl Nurse, who chairs the St. Petersburg Area Greater Chamber of Commerce Grow Smarter Housing workgroup and sat on Tuesday's panel, said Atkins concerns are valid. Nurse said for-profit developers that were buying foreclosed properties in Roser Park and Palmetto Park and replacing the old houses with more expensive ones. But in the past four months, Nurse said, the city has found ways to hand over more lots to nonprofit developers to build affordable housing.
Others in the audiences criticized the forum's focus on statewide policy, saying they wanted the panel to speak specifically about gentrification in St. Petersburg, and how housing code violations can result in liens.
"I wish they spoke more about how code enforcements affect the black community," resident Darryl Walls said after the meeting. "If you didn't push all these people out of their houses you wouldn't have as big of a problem."
Contact Aaron Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.