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St. Pete considers "lock box" idea to secure affordable housing money

Posted at 3:10 PM, Jun 17, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — St. Petersburg city leaders are looking into starting an affordable housing fund that would function as a “lock box” of sorts at a local level, basically restricting a portion of city funds for affordable housing only.

Councilwoman Brandi Gabbard is heading up the initiative after watching in dismay as she says Florida’s statewide affordable housing trust fund continues to be used by the Florida legislature to fill general budget purposes. For the 12th year in a row, state lawmakers dipped into a trust fund set up for affordable housing to plug holes in the budget.

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This new "lock box" concept would ensure that now and in the future St. Pete funds affordable housing projects.

St. Petersburg City Council says the most likely way to add the new "lock box" concept to the city charter would be through a citywide referendum.

The next step is figuring out where the money to be locked up will be coming from.

Council member Steve Kornell urged city leaders to consider setting something up similar to the fund used for Weeki Wachee, where currently a pool of money is set up and designated for a specific purpose. In Weeki Wachee, the revenue coming from the sale of city property in Weeki Wachee Springs can only be spent on parks, recreation, preservation, and beautification.

The plan is to ask voters this year or next to approve a one-time tax increase to start the fund. Then look for a more permanent source to keep the money coming in.

It's a welcoming idea for Sciandra Jones who has been scouring St. Pete for 8 months looking for an affordable apartment.

“Oh my gosh. It is ridiculously hard to find an affordable place to live here," she said with enthusiasm.

16,000 families in Pinellas County and 20,000 in Hillsborough County are on waiting lists for subsidized apartments or housing vouchers, according to the local housing authorities.

Mike Sutton, the CEO for Pinellas County's Habitat for Humanity thinks the idea of locking up money for affordable housing could help send a message to lawmakers in Tallahassee. “Hopefully it would be something that state lawmakers would take notice of and that’s encouragement at the state level to also push dollars down," Sutton added.

St. Pete is looking at many ways to prioritize affordable housing, as hundreds of families continue to be placed on waiting lists for available affordable housing in Pinellas County.

The city is also looking at a plan to buy up the Science Center in the Tyrone area and demolish it to make way for affordable housing.