March 11, 2019. Tampa Bay Newspapers.

CLEARWATER — Members of Faith and Action for Strength Together asked Pinellas County Commissioners for assurances that the next round of Penny for Pinellas funds would be spent on affordable housing as promised.

FAST, which is an organization made up of members of church congregations throughout the county, is concerned that future commissioners might not have the same mindset as the current ones about the importance of affordable housing.

FAST still hasn’t forgotten that commissioners failed to put as much Penny money as planned into a land trust for affordable housing due to the Great Recession. Commissioners have explained several times that money for affordable housing wasn’t the only promise downsized due to the economic downturn that cost millions of dollars in reduced revenue.

But FAST members remain resolved toward their goal of getting funding for what they believe is one of the county’s most pressing problems. They say the lack of affordable housing is making it difficult for the elderly or people who work at low-paying jobs to live in Pinellas.

They say the waiting list for Section 8 housing is up to 16,000 and currently closed. Section 8, otherwise known as the federal governments Housing Choice Voucher program, provides rental assistance to families, the elderly and persons with special needs that have incomes up to 50 percent of the Area Median Income, which would be $22,400 for a single-person household.

During the next 10 years of Penny for Pinellas collections (2020-2029), the county plans to allocate 8.3 percent of the 11.3 percent of net proceeds to economic development capital projects, as well as land acquisition and capital projects for providing affordable housing to meet the needs of the local workforce.

FAST wanted assurances that at least half of that money — 4.15 percent — would be dedicated to affordable housing. And the organization wanted it in writing.

Despite the commissioners explanation that anything in writing could be changed by a future commission, FAST insisted. So, county staff prepared a resolution that outlined the commission’s intentions.

According to the resolution, at least 4.15 percent of the 8.3 percent allocated to economic development capital projects and housing would be dedicated to affordable housing, whether it is used for land acquisition or for capital projects that support it.

The resolution also says it is the commission’s goal to spend at least 10 percent of the proceeds each year on affordable housing.

In recognition of the need for affordable housing at different income levels, the resolution states that the commission “aspires to dedicate proceeds to housing projects where 40 percent would benefit households making 60 percent of AMI or less, projects where all of the units would be available for households making 80 percent of AMI of less, or projects providing affordable housing for other income levels if data shows those income levels have the greatest need.”

FAST has been pushing for more money to solve what members describe as a crisis. They say police officers, nurses, wait staff and others gainfully employed are unable to find a place to live that doesn’t take the majority of their income. Some can’t afford a home at all, they say.

The Rev. Kathleen Walter of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Clearwater said she hears many stories about people struggling to pay for housing.

“This is going to help a lot of people have a home,” said FAST member Donna Davis.

The resolution passed unanimously on Feb. 26.

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