Affordable housing has become one of the hottest issues in St. Petersburg politics as was evidenced Monday night when the topic was front and center during a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
At Monday night’s forum, all eight candidates running in the District 6 race spoke out on the issue, as well as homelessness, economic development, the Pier, campaign finance, sustainability and other traditional fare heard at every council debate to date.
When asked how they would build affordable housing, the answers were varied.
“It comes down to the level of investment,” said environmental activist James Scott, who said it was incumbent upon local governments like the St. Pete City Council to make up the funding gap that exists because of a reduction in investment in housing by Washington and Tallahassee.
Gina Driscoll, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the city should work with non-profit groups that build affordable housing on the more than 70 vacant lots that are zoned for single family homes in the city.
Former educator Jim Jackson says the city needs to act on an inclusionary zone ordinance requiring that in any newly constructed building, developers must set aside 10 percent of the units for people who make a living wage. “They sent it up to the Pinellas Commission, and they’ve just sat on it. We willing fact, do it on our own,” he said.
Robert Blackmon works on housing in St. Pete, and boasted about that. “I’ve done it over 150 times in this city – I’ve renovated that many units and keep them all affordable,” he insisted. He said it can be done through renovating existing homes, not tearing them down.
Corey Givens Jr. followed up by giving a shiv to Blackmon.
“Affordable housing is important to me, not because of the financial benefits that it may pose to my pockets, but because I’m passionate about it,” he said, before adding that he agreed with Blackmon about renovating homes on those empty lots.
St. Petersburg NAACP president Maria Scruggs said before the city could build more affordable housing, they needed to help create affordable wages for people to live in those homes.
Businessman Justin Bean says he’s worked with groups like Habitat for Humanity on lower priced homes in the area (which he defined as $100,000, earning some laughs from the audience). He also said he supports the townhouses/skinny home concept that has come before the Council.
“First we have to redefine with affordable means,” said Erica “Akile” Cainion in response to Bean’s remark. She said the best thing to do would be to turn over the 85 acres at Tropicana Field to the black community to build affordable housing there to start with.
The candidates were then asked about how they would address homelessness in the city.
“I want to end the criminalization of the homeless,” said Cainion, getting in a quick blast at former Mayor Rick “the box-cutter” Baker. alluding to a 2007 incident when SPPD officer cut the tents of some homeless people with box-cutters who were living on 15th Avenue and 15th Street.
Bean said he supported the Housing First model that was adopted by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama was working well around the country. He said the problem was widespread beyond the city and throughout Pinellas County.
Scruggs said there needed be a coordinated strategy among the groups that were “claiming” to be addressing the homeless issue. She said she’s spent the past year and a half trying to find housing for homeless families and individuals with mental health issues, and was struggling to achieve success.
“It’s a travesty in the way that the funding is established, and the lack of funding is addressing this very serious issue, where we see an increase of women and children on the street,” she added.
“The homeless can’t govern themselves if they don’t want to help themselves,” said a tough sounding Givens, earning some groans from the crowd. “So we need to find ways to motivate the homeless to want to do better,” he said. He then did a little humble bragging, saying it would take someone who’s actually taken the time to speak to thehomelss in Wiliams Park to be know how deep the issue sits.
“I’ve taken time out of my schedule to help those living at St. Vincent De Paul, and what I found out is that folks don’t have access to the resources that they to help better their situation in life,” Givens said, challenging those in the audience to do the same.
Blackmon repeated that dilapidated, empty homes should be renovated and given to nonprofits, vs. being demolished with developers purchasing the land.
Jackson said he was “shocked” by some of the responses of his colleagues on the dais. “Any of us could be homeless,” he declared. He also called the homeless shelters Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor no different than “detention camps ” to house the homeless.
Driscoll said that there were way too many homeless people in St. Pete, and said the city and police don’t have enough resources to deal with the issue. She also said it was important to identify the causes of homelessness, and identify those families on the brink of losing their housing so that they can get essential services to prevent that from happening.
Scott said his response was similar to the issue of affordable housing – lack of investment. He said “millions of dollars” would be needed to spend for housing and wrap around services for the housing.
Although Uhuru members who support Cainion occasionally did cheer loudly for their candidate, earning one polite rebuke from LWV moderator Stephanie Owens, there was little controversy about the behavior of the crowd.
Instead it was the candidates getting chippy with each other.
Blackmon chastised Jackson for mispronouncing Lake Maggiore, while Scruggs reminded Blackmon that she had been working on behalf of the people of St. Petersburg long before he had ever come on the scene.