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Is Tampa doing enough to make sure its housing remains affordable?

TAMPA — On a recent Saturday morning, a city-sponsored affordable housing workshop at the Barksdale Senior Center in MacFarlane Park drew such a big crowd that organizers opened the doors 30 minutes early.

A few days later, Vanessa B. McCleary, the city's housing and community development manager, recalled that morning's excitement, then sprinkled in some more good news. Next year, the city will build 60 homes with non-profit partners, almost double this year's total. And Mayor Jane Castor's first budget is slated to have more than $1 million ticketed for helping low-income people buy those homes.

Castor and City Council have acted strongly in recent weeks to signal their respective interests in expanding the city's base of affordable housing stock — generally viewed as between $180,000 and $220,000 — and addressing the growing gap between housing prices and what working people can afford to pay.

Castor has announced the formation of an affordable housing task force. She addressed the issue repeatedly during her campaign and has addressed it publicly several times in the initial weeks of her first term. She's had conversations with developers, drawing on her connections to persuade them to include affordable housing in their plans. And she's expressed openness to many innovative ideas, from tiny homes and container homes to converting mom and pop motels along Nebraska Avenue into cheaper housing.

City government's attention, these days, is fully paid to gentrification, although no one holding municipal power calls the problem by that name. Instead, Castor and newly-elected council members Orlando Gudes, John Dingfelder and Bill Carlson, key players in still-forming council alliances, have all spoken publicly about the issue, highlighting stories of poor, and often minority, residents squeezed between rising rents and high-priced homes.

McCleary and Thomas Snelling, the city's director of planning and development, have noticed a greater sense of urgency in the mayor's office and among council members since they took office last month.

"There is a bit more of a sense of urgency, not just a Tampa or Florida. It's affordable housing nationwide," Snelling said, adding that cities like Tampa are "starting to do everything that's in their power and do everything possible to put affordable units out there for people to buy."

At a citizen advisory board meeting this week in East Tampa, council member Orlando Gudes, who attended the MacFarlane Park event, said the city isn't doing enough to target working-class residents in his district, the city's only majority black council seat.

Gudes said the city needs to do a better job of getting the word out about programs that can help homeowners reduce their monthly mortgage. He said the best way to do that in his district would be to buy radio time on WTMP-AM 1150 and 95.7 FM The Beat, stations widely listened to in the black community, especially on weekends.

McCleary and Gudes agree on the need for public education. Many people who might become homeowners often don't think they'll qualify for down payment aid. The city has counselors to help applicants budget and save the $2,000 they'll need to provide on a down payment. Often, it's just a matter of months.

"It's really not as hard as people think," McCleary said. "You start out with $1. The next week you save $2. You just keep building up. Once you get in that savings habit ... it definitely has a ripple effect."

Gudes said the city needs to improve its outreach and make sure people know there is help available.

"We do a bad job at marketing," Gudes said. If residents don't know about programs, he said it limits their effectiveness.

He said he'd like the city to offer at least three levels of housing support to open access for small business owners and lower-income residents. There are different needs, he said.

Snelling said Castor's attention to the issue has made its way into the development community. He said he was optimistic that the mayor can successfully negotiate more affordable housing moving forward.

"That's very good news for us," he said. "She can advocate for the community in ways that Vanessa and I cannot."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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