City’s affordable housing plan needs work

Larry Newsome

Dear Editor:

Affordable housing is a widely discussed topic these days in the City of St. Petersburg.  There have been articles in the Tampa Bay Times, The Weekly Challenger, panel discussions, symposiums and other general discussions. Unfortunately, there has been a lot more discussion than action.

Many organizations within the city have been working on plans that emphasize their interest in the topic, but no real idea that stresses the well-thought-out needs of the entire city.

The current city administration recently announced a new affordable housing initiative. I commend the city for finally doing something; however, the plan put forth should be seen as a good first step rather than a finished product.

Affordable housing is not just housing for low-income individuals and families. Studies show that almost half the people in the city pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing-related issues.

Thirty percent is the recommended amount that families should pay for housing. If you are paying more than that, you need affordable housing solutions or assistance. This problem is not just isolated within Midtown but is instead a citywide issue.

The things needed to deal with the affordable housing crisis effectively:

(1) A well-thought-out plan based on empirical data that adequately describes the depth and magnitude of the problem.  The plan developed needs to be of some consequence to resolve the issue it is addressing.

The affordable housing crisis facing the city is a NOW problem.  Such as the city’s sewer problem, the system has to be fixed now with a plan to keep the new upgraded system effective and operational for the foreseeable future.

The housing crisis is similarly a NOW problem that needs to be fixed immediately with plans to keep the new approach effective and operational for the foreseeable future. The plan announced by the city has a 10-year time horizon.

Given the significant amount of effort needed, enabling ordinances, the coordination required between city, state and federal agencies, and the significant amount of capital that has to be raised, this is a reasonable time horizon.

The city did not say how the program was devised, or the source of the data utilized to formulate the plan. They did not outline the depth or magnitude of the problem or how much of the problem it is designed to resolve.

Atlanta just announced a one billion dollar affordable housing initiative. Atlanta is a little less than twice the size of St. Petersburg. If they need a billion dollars to resolve their issue, it is difficult to imagine that St. Pete is going to solve theirs with $60 million.

It is hard to determine whether this plan is substantive or merely cosmetic because we do not know how much of the problem it is trying to resolve.

(2) The plan developed needs an adequate, dedicated funding source. Having such a source would allow for the issuance of bonds that could be used to construct housing NOW.

The plan developed by the city, quite frankly, needs improvement. It is not sufficient to solve the problem now or in the future.

It is pretty much a pay-as-you-go approach. It needs significant resources NOW that can be supplemented with funds from the state and federal level along with private monies.

The city is also considering utilizing linkage fees as a source of funding. Affordable housing is a citywide problem that affects almost half its residents. The funding source utilized to correct the problem should call on all citizens to contribute to the resolution of the issue.

The chamber of commerce developed a plan similar to the Southside CRA that would require 10 percent of future property tax revenues citywide to be utilized to fund affordable housing initiatives.  This approach would be superior to linkage fees for several reasons, one of which is because it is not a new tax. It is a reallocation of future tax revenues.

Also, it would generate significantly more revenue than would linkage fees. There are other advantages noted by the chamber that are too numerous to outline in this article.

(3) The plan, to be effective, would require new infrastructure to ensure its effective implementation. New programs and initiatives of this size and magnitude, if left to current city staff, would be saddled with operational challenges from the outset.

While administrative oversight is necessary for programs funded by taxpayer dollars, a certain amount of ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit is required for this type effort that, quite frankly, does not exist in the current city staff.

A public/private partnership of some kind would probably make the most sense. The plan presented by the city is silent on the management and administration of this effort.  Even if nothing else happens, they need to seriously look at how this initiative is to be carried out.

(4) A 10-year plan would be administered by a least two different administrations and as many as three. To be effective and not be disrupted — significantly by a change of administration — it needs to be codified either through referendum or ordinance.

The plan announced by the city is mostly actions and initiatives already being undertaken by the current administration. Some things will require council approval, such as linkage fees.  The announced plan would probably die or be changed significantly by the next incoming administration.

Now that the city has announced a plan, the time is now for individuals, civic groups and other organizations within the Midtown community to coalesce around a set of goals and principles, concerning affordable housing.

This train is ready to run. Midtown should not be once again left waiting at the station while we squabble amongst ourselves.

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