(From left to right) Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor & St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch with unidentified citizen at the Suncoast Tiger Bay meeting in St. Petersburg on Jan. 3, 2023. (photo by Mitch Perry)
While Ron DeSantis was once again declaring that Florida is the state where “woke goes to die,” the mayors representing the three biggest cities in the Tampa Bay area discussed what they see as their biggest challenge: affordable housing.
That’s a problem the governor neglected during his inauguration speech on Tuesday.
“We still need cooperation with the county and certainly at the state level,” said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Republican serving in his third term overall, during a meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. “The Sadowski fund needs to be left intact and distributed out to cities.”
The Sadowski Trust Fund was created by the Legislature in 1992 to dedicate a portion of taxes on properties sold to fund affordable housing. However, during the Jeb Bush administration, lawmakers began diverting some of those funds to other projects. In 2021, state lawmakers passed legislation that would prevent the raiding of those funds, but simultaneously cut the amount it provided for housing.
As noted by dozens of state Democrats in a letter to Gov. DeSantis last April, the increases in rents in Miami, Orlando, and Tampa in the past year ranked among the highest in the nation. Those lawmakers noted that rents had increased in Central Florida by 20% and in South Florida by 57%.
“Housing is a crisis throughout our nation, but specifically in the Tampa Bay region, one of the fastest, if not the fastest-growing in the nation,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a Democrat running for reelection this year.
Castor promised when she began her tenure in office to provide 10,000 affordable units by 2027. She says that her administration is more than halfway past that goal by having created 6,000 affordable units to date. Castor has asked developers to set aside a minimum of 10% from each project for affordable housing units in exchange for allowing the developer to put more residential units on a piece of property.
But her counterpart across Tampa Bay, Ken Welch, a Democrat who is just beginning his second year in office as mayor of St. Petersburg, said that having projects that set aside just 10% of their units for affordable or workforce housing isn’t going to help enough people.
“When we have a project coming in and we’re cheering that it’s 10% affordable — 10% workforce housing, which is actually folks making 120% of every median income, then we are falling further and further behind,” he said — adding that while plenty of downtown St. Petersburg housing under construction is considered luxury or market rate, middle-income people are being priced out of his city.
“What we’re losing and what we heard all during the campaign [in 2021] and all of this year are folks who are here saying, ‘I can’t afford the rent. Our rent went up $500-$1,000. I can’t afford the new housing prices,’” he said.
Another issue unaddressed by the governor was climate change, something mayors in coastal communities throughout Florida are contending with. Welch brought up the issue after he was asked about the effects of social media on politics in 2023. He said he was concerned with the undermining of facts and truth in today’s political culture.
“We’re sitting here at the epicenter of sea-level rise in Florida, you know, and we need to look at the fact and understand what sea-level rise means for St. Pete-Pinellas-Tampa Bay and not get into these partisan echo chambers, much less misinformation about it,” he said.
Regarding climate change, the city of Clearwater last month became the 13th city in Florida to commit to 100% clean and renewable energy in its city operations by 2040 and citywide by 2050, joining Tampa, St. Petersburg Tallahassee, Gainesville, and eight other cities and one county in the Sunshine State to make such a commitment.
“I’m proud that Clearwater’s going to be up there with leaders in the community setting measurable goals, working towards those, saving our residents money and reducing pollution. It’s just an absolute win-win,” said Clearwater Councilmember Kathleen Beckman, who attended Tuesday’s event. She says she wishes the state would do more on the issue.
“I would love for the Public Service Commission to set goals and requirements,” she said. “I would love them to incentivize more clean energy policies.”
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