Feedback from a series of “Community Conversations” held by St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch showed affordable housing is “not surprisingly” the top concern among residents in one of the country’s hardest-hit cities for inflation and rental increases.
Welch held the conversations in mid-December, before being sworn in. The city Friday released the results of focus groups questioned during the events, as well as an action plan based on community responses. The conversations covered five topics: housing opportunities for all; equitable development and business opportunities; environment, infrastructure and resilience; education and youth opportunities; and neighborhood health and safety.
“One of my pillars of governance is staying in touch with everyone who lives, works or plays in St. Petersburg. Our Community Conversations series is one of our tactics to accomplish that goal” Welch said. “I was inspired by the feedback we received from participants and my administration will consider all of the issues raised and suggestions offered as we move forward with policymaking that emphasizes informed decision-making, intentional equity and innovation to identify solutions that benefit all.”
For each topic, they were asked what is currently being done to address the issue; what are barriers to overcoming it and what is the boldest step the city could take to tackle the issue. Out of 2,707 unique responses, 637 — the most for any single category — identified affordable housing as the most pressing issue. And 1,122 highlighted barriers to progress as a concern in response to the topics.
“The top concern that came from the series, not surprisingly, was affordable housing,” Janelle Irwin Taylor, Welch’s communications director, said. “We have taken significant steps in that area.”
Earlier this week, St. Pete announced some of those steps.
Welch, however, didn’t need to see those results to understand the dire straits facing residents in the city. Welch set affordable housing as a main priority during his January inauguration. And in one of his first official acts, Welch created a position — Assistant Administrator for Strategic Initiatives — and appointed Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes to it. Welch said the office will grow to take on more issues, but Gerdes will prioritize housing full-time to begin.
And last month a study from the Harvard Kennedy School found nearly half of renters and a quarter of homeowners in St. Pete are cost-burdened, spending 30% of their income or more on housing. Nearly a quarter of renters and 11% of homeowners spend more than half their income on housing, the study said. And it gets worse for low-income residents. The study found 51% of homeowners who make less than 50% of the area median income (AMI) spend more than half that income on a mortgage. And 69% of renters below 50% AMI spend more than half their income on rent.
But the study quantifies the cries of embattled tenants clamoring for relief, including the intersectionality of issues overlapping with housing.
“Poverty, accessibility, financial literacy, mental health, homelessness, public safety, systematic racism, lack of education and increased wages were cross-cutting themes consistently woven into the grievances, ideas and observations of the contributors,” the survey said.
According to the results, respondents said “City Council is approving too many luxury developments without restrictions, regulations, or mandating developers commit a percentage of development toward affordable and workforce housing.” Of all the barriers to housing affordability, luxury condos were the most talked about.
Residents also expressed concern that most of the city’s affordable housing is located on the outskirts of the city, creating barriers for low-income residents with limited transportation options. Many also said the sharp rise in rents has fiercely overburdened renters. Some reported monthly increases as high as $600. Respondents suggested capping rents, but that idea has already been shot down by the City Council.
However, many suggestions and barriers were addressed through the actions of Welch and the City Council.
Last week, St. Pete’s Delmar 745 project welcomed its first families. It’s a newly constructed 12-story, 65-unit apartment complex next to Interstate 175 downtown, targeted at renters making 30-60% of the AMI. Council Vice-chair Brandi Gabbard has pushed for a housing-first land policy for city property, including an analysis of how many units should be utilized for affordable housing designations. She also wants a city-employee housing assistance program. And though Council Member Richie Floyd‘s push for rent control didn’t pass, he successfully got the Council to explore legal support for tenants, especially those facing eviction.
Welch’s administration has also led efforts to divert the lion’s share of the $45 million the city got through the American Rescue Plan Act to housing initiatives. It also recently expanded its homeowner-assistance program.
But respondents also said properly defining affordable housing is crucial to understanding how to solve the crisis. Too often, they said, the issue of housing affordability is conflated with low-income housing with subpar conditions and amenities when in actuality it’s meant to ensure equitable rates for the average citizen in housing built to market standards.
“It is not a matter of households making minimum wage and having challenges,” one respondent said. But those making the median of the city and having significant difficulty being able to buy and begin to build that generational wealth.”