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Affordable housing gets harder to find in Pinellas

A Times Editorial
Published January 30, 2005

Will Pinellas County's children be able to afford to live here when they grow up?

It is an important question that ought to concern public officials in every corner of the county.

Built-out Pinellas put out the word that it was open for redevelopment, and now it is teeming with developers who are scouring the county for opportunities. But so far, what do many of them want to build? "High end" residential projects, where sale prices may reach more than a million dollars. The Times recently reported that the average price for a newly built home in Pinellas last year was almost $400,000. It was $300,000 just two years ago.

Many of these high-end projects are being built on ground that once supported mobile home parks, apartment complexes and older homes. That housing was affordable to people who survived on low or moderate incomes: senior citizens, recent high school and college graduates, young families, and people in occupations that pay only moderate wages, such police officers, secretaries, restaurant and hotel workers, store clerks, schoolteachers, truck drivers and a host of others.

Where will they live when those affordable homes are demolished and replaced by new homes that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Many will be forced to move to other counties in the bay area, and when they do, it will be increasingly difficult for Pinellas employers to keep them. The service workers on whom the county's tourism industry is so dependent, and the midlevel workers who keep the county's ubiquitous offices and medical clinics staffed, will find it time-consuming and expensive to commute into the county. Among those who try to stay in Pinellas, homelessness may increase.

This is a scary picture that illustrates why it is so vital to have a good mix of housing types in a community. Public officials in Pinellas do a lot of talking about the need to build affordable housing, but the challenge is how to accomplish that when soaring land values make construction of low-cost housing unprofitable, while there is much profit to be made in building expensive housing.

In recent years, some builders have been enticed to construct affordable housing by a system of tax credits. Some local governments have further sweetened the pot by waiving impact fees and expediting approvals for lower-cost housing.

Last week, Largo officials and a developer broke ground for a 180-unit apartment complex for low- to moderate-income residents on Clearwater-Largo Road at Ponce De Leon Boulevard. The Richman Group of Florida will get tax credits for building the Belleair Place Apartments, and the city dropped more than $500,000 in impact fees the builder otherwise would have paid. Residents who meet income qualifications will pay $700 to $800 a month to rent the apartments.

Largo officials sought out developers interested in affordable housing, and they say they hope that Belleair Place will be just the first of many such projects along Clearwater-Largo Road, where rundown mobile home parks had threatened to derail a city initiative to upgrade the corridor.

However, not all local governments are as intent on attracting affordable housing as Largo. There are numerous reasons for their lack of motivation: pinched municipal budgets that make it more difficult to waive fees; concern that residents of affordable housing will require more government services; the allure of big tax base increases when high-end projects are built; and the lack of lobbying power by those who need low-cost housing.

Another significant reason officials drag their feet is that neighbors typically mount energetic campaigns against such projects, mistakenly believing that "affordable housing" is the same as "public housing" and fearing a drop in their property values.

Developers also may be less and less motivated by incentives such as tax credits as the profit differential between low-cost and high-end developments grows because of spiraling land costs.

In a market as hot for developers as Pinellas, public officials cannot afford to wait until some other time to come up with programs to ensure a diverse housing stock. Future Pinellas residents of all income levels will need safe, clean and affordable places to live.

[Last modified January 30, 2005, 00:10:19]

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