In Clearwater, like the rest of Tampa Bay, rents are rising, home ownership has become less affordable, and residents are looking to local government for solutions.
At a city council candidates’ forum last week, the six candidates vying for two seats in the March 15 election were asked if they would support declaring a housing emergency.
Only Maranda Douglas, candidate for seat 4, and Jonathan Wade, candidate for seat 5, said yes.
“When people can’t afford to stay in their homes and have a place to stay, that’s an emergency,” said Wade, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.
All of the candidates saw affordable housing as a serious issue, but Seat 5 candidates Aaron Smith-Levin and Lina Teixeira both said they were unaware of the legal implications of a state of emergency. Seat 4 outgoing council member David Allbritton said he would not declare an emergency for Clearwater because “it’s happening everywhere”. Seat 4 challenger Gerry Lee said affordable housing is the “highest priority,” but he would not declare an emergency.
“Everyone I talk to is being hit by rent increases, cost of living increases, so I don’t know what kind of circles they’re running that they don’t see housing as a crisis, but we do. are one,” Mike Sutton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, said in a later interview.
The cities of Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg in recent months signed a pact with the Pinellas County government that outlines “a common set of policies to create more affordable housing across the county.” Pinellas County has dedicated $80 million penny to Pinellas one-cent sales tax dollars this decade to develop affordable housing.
Clearwater uses three pots of state and federal funding to provide down payment assistance and rehabilitation loans to residents as well as incentives for developers to build affordable units.
But Denise Sanderson, the city’s director of economic development and housing, said municipalities also need to consider other creative solutions because there’s no way “to get out of the affordable housing crisis.”
One strategy, she said, is to recruit high-paying employers so residents can “continue to build personal wealth, advanced skills and salaries so they can afford to have the security and retirement and all the things we dream about”.
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The Saint Petersburg City Council began in December exploring the legality of declaring a state of emergency to freeze rent prices for up to a year. But in February, a committee voted against advancing the initiative to full council after the legal department said it could open the city up to costly lawsuits.
At the Clearwater Upper Pinellas County branch of the NAACP election forum last week, Clearwater council candidates faced questions about housing from several residents.
Douglas, a community activist running for Seat 4, said she would push Clearwater Council to pass a tenants’ bill of rights, as governments have done in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County.
These resolutions generally require landlords to provide tenants with notice of their housing rights under existing laws, a list of resources for tenant assistance, and disclosure of late fees that may be assessed.
Smith-Levin, the Seat 5 candidate, said rental assistance needs to be as much a part of the conversation as developer incentives. Teixeira, also a candidate for Seat 5, said education is key as the “not in my backyard” narrative persists among residents.
Lee, the candidate for seat 4, said he would push for the city to buy more land from private owners and then resell it to affordable housing developers. Allbritton, the incumbent of Seat 4, praised Clearwater’s current use of federal and state funding to incentivize developers to make housing affordable for those earning between 60 and 120 percent of the region’s median income.
Sutton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, said one of the most effective actions local governments can take is to “reduce bureaucracy.”
His organization is preparing to build homes on five lots the group is buying from the city this year off Myrtle Avenue. But two of the five must go through hearings to rezone them from industrial to residential. The schedule includes six city and county hearings that will run from March through July.
“The bureaucracy, the process, is too long,” Sutton said. “If you look at it from a business perspective, time is money. And when it takes months and months to get permits and zoning, that’s going to turn people away from doing affordable projects.
Costs for an 81-unit affordable housing project being built at the city’s former fire station on Franklin Street by Tampa-based Blue Sky Communities have risen by $4.6 million since the first launch in the city in 2019. The project was delayed because it took the developer two years to obtain state tax credits.
In December, the council awarded Blue Sky $1.8 million from its state and federal housing fund, in addition to the $610,000 originally committed in 2019, to help with increases. The Pinellas County Commission also awarded the project $2 million from the Penny for Pinellas Affordable Housing Program due to the increase.
Sutton said it costs $30,000 more today to build an average Habitat for Humanity home than it did before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
“The cost of homes continues to rise, the supply chain is a challenge, the process is a challenge,” Sutton said. “The only thing that doesn’t change is affordability for homeowners.”