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Business Observer Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 6 months ago

City Council Chair: Governments need to create a housing affordability toolbox

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Cities must lead by example to begin to solve affordable housing issues, says a city councilwoman.
by: Gina Driscoll

Housing affordability is the biggest challenge we face today, as the red-hot housing market puts homeownership out of reach for many and skyrocketing rents leave cost-burdened tenants with fewer options.

With our region’s population exploding, local governments are grappling with a tough challenge: How do we ensure there are quality housing options for people at all income levels?

There is no single magic bullet for addressing housing affordability. Rather, governments must create a toolbox that contains a variety of common-sense solutions. Funding is a significant tool, of course, but there will never be enough public funds to eradicate this problem alone.

Read more about affordable housing in the region.

So what should we do? We must combine solid funding mechanisms with changes to zoning and land development regulations to create a more favorable environment for building and preserving affordable housing.

Consider these options:

Encourage more accessory dwelling units: Carriage houses, garage apartments, and “granny flats,” a self-contained living area, can create a win-win for the homeowner and the tenant. Homeowners can use the ADU income to help with their housing costs, while tenants pay below-market rates and often have utilities included in the rent. An ADU can also keep an aging family member close as an alternative to an assisted living facility. Local governments can encourage more ADU construction by easing restrictions on where they are allowed, and by offering an expedited permitting process with pre-approved plans.

Upzone the whole city: Yes, everywhere. For too long, zoning that restricts entire neighborhoods to single-family homes has dominated — and stunted — our growth. Many historic neighborhoods were originally built with a mix of housing types, but were rezoned years ago to allow only single-family homes. It’s time to modernize our zoning and make it work for today’s needs. Reasonable increases in density make better use of our land, expand property owners’ rights and can create more affordable housing options. Duplexes, triplexes, and even small rows of townhouses can be designed to blend perfectly into the unique character of a traditional neighborhood.

Offer meaningful incentives: In addition to providing government funding to build moderately priced homes, we must preserve our current housing stock and keep it affordable. This can be accomplished by partnering with the private sector for the purchase of existing properties with a condition of maintaining affordability. Also, rebates and incentives can be offered to property owners for repairs and upgrades in exchange for a long-term affordability agreement.

Utilize city-owned land: Vacant parcels owned by a city can sit idle for years before a development project is identified or the land is sold. Cities should adopt a system for regularly reviewing the list of such parcels for housing opportunities, then aggressively marketing those properties to developers with affordability as a priority. For mixed-use and mixed-income projects, cities should establish a minimum percentage of residential units designated for long-term affordability. If we expect certain actions from others, the actions we take with our own properties should set the example.

Governments can increase housing affordability now through a combination of zoning reform, greater flexibility for development and incentives. Each city should create its own toolbox based on its unique characteristics and needs. The most successful municipalities will be those that fill their toolboxes with win-win-win solutions that empower property owners, support like-minded developers and builders and create options for everyone who wants a safe and affordable place to call home.

St. Petersburg City Council Chair Gina Driscoll was elected to the St. Petersburg City Council in 2017. A former media and hospitality executive, Driscoll represents District 6, which includes downtown St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg City Council races are nonpartisan.

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