ST. PETERSBURG — Months ago, residents who attended a series of workshops voted on which priorities deserved the most funding from the city’s share of $45 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
A total of 557 people power-ranked five categories allowed by the federal government. Housing affordability got the most votes, followed by health and social, infrastructure, economic recovery and equity and public health and safety. Funding was allocated proportionally.
But as rapidly rising rents continue to distress renters, some of whom are pushing for drastic measures such as rent control, City Council members asked to allocate more money to affordable housing.
On Thursday, city administrators presented a new funding chart with $34.3 million for affordable housing and $11.1 million for health and social equity toward the city’s healthy food action plan and youth workforce and development training, among other projects. Funding for infrastructure, economic recovery and public health and safety was reduced to zero.
“It is disappointing to see the numbers go to zero on some of those other line items,” said council member Richie Floyd. “But I think we all understand the situation that we’re in today.”
The City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to spend the first $10 million of ARPA funding on two projects: $6.5 million on the Deuces Rising Townhome Development and $3.5 million to the Housing Capital Improvement Fund to construct new units for residents with incomes at 60 percent of the area median income or lower. Council members Ed Montanari and Deborah Figgs-Sanders were absent for the vote.
The Deuces Rising project includes 20 to 26 two-story townhomes to be sold to families making 60 to 120 percent of the area median income. Construction is expected to begin by the summer of 2023 and completed by summer 2024.
The $3.5 million for the Housing Capital Improvement Fund is for contributions to nonprofit developers to construct affordable housing. William Kilgore with the St. Petersburg Tenants Union suggested that the money should go to homeless resources, rapid rehousing and rental assistance instead.
Council chairperson Gina Driscoll questioned why funding from the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which has a $3 million surplus, couldn’t be used for the Deuces Rising project. Assistant city administrator Rob Gerdes said that money will be used for additional developments.
Gerdes also reminded the council that the Pinellas County Commission will vote March 8 on making $20 million in emergency rental assistance available to St. Petersburg residents.
Driscoll also lamented the loss of funding for a new water-testing lab that had been proposed as part of the $8 million infrastructure investment and a car-free “festival street” concept proposed for 22nd Street S in the Deuces area with $5.5 million in economic recovery and resiliency money.
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City administrator Tom Greene said water resources will have to shuffle its priorities, but the lab can be paid for. He said infrastructure grants may be available to pay for the festival street.
“Shifting this funding, I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Driscoll said. “But I don’t want everything else to just get lost.”
Also on Thursday, the council unanimously approved Floyd’s request for a discussion of how the city can increase the availability of legal representation for tenants, particularly during eviction hearings.