By Sandra Averhart, WUWF

JUST Pensacola is gearing up for its 4th annual Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday evening at First Baptist Church of Warrington. For 2023, the coalition of 17 interfaith congregations is continuing to press for action on affordable housing and criminal justice.

Because they’re such mammoth issues in the community, Just Pensacola has been working on both issues for multiple years.

The call for local leaders to address the affordable housing crisis came out of last year’s Nehemiah Action Assembly. Now, the focus has been narrowed to affordable rental housing in the City of Pensacola.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve done our research. We have come up with a proposal for city council and the mayor,” said Marian Bennett, a member of Allen Chapel AME Church downtown and one of the co-chairs of JUST Pensacola.

“We want a Pensacola Affordable Rental Housing Trust Fund established that will have dedicated funding of at least $4.2 million every year for at least ten years. And the goal is to produce and preserve safe, decent and affordable rental housing in the Pensacola area.”

The organization presented its plan to councilmembers in February.

“We have learned from our research that waiting for laws of supply and demand to auto-correct this issue is unrealistic,” said Rev. Ansley Walker from St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church. “Instead, we need a tool like this to incentivize affordable housing developers to come to our city. The goal is to leverage trust fund dollars to provide 100 affordable rental units every year for the next 10 years. It can be done.”

That would cover the current shortage of about 1,000 affordable rental housing units in the city for households earning 80% or less than the Area Median Income (AMI) of $79,500.

2021 U.S. Census data show the area median income for Pensacola is just over $59,000.

This means essential workers such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, retail workers and those in the health and hospitality industries are among those adversely affected.

According to Bennett, stories of struggle were shared across Just Pensacola’s diverse congregations.

“We learned that we have multiple generations moving into one house or an apartment because the younger people can’t afford to get an apartment or a home of their own,” she said. “We had a story of a mother giving tents to their children when their rent increased by, say, $300 to $500 a month, because that was unaffordable. And the one that I find most upsetting is the stories of how many young people are moving out of Pensacola because they can’t afford to live here.”

JUST Pensacola’s research of rental prices across the city shows the average cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $1,341 in neighborhoods such as East Hill, East Pensacola Heights, and Woodland Heights; to $1,458 in the communities of Dunmire Woods and Sanders Beach; up to $1,834 in Downtown Pensacola and Aragon in the Seville Historic District.

Based on the recommended guide to spend about 30% of income on housing, many classifications of workers fall way short in terms of what they can allot to housing each month.

“Bank tellers and child, family and school social workers, $800 to $1,000,” Bennett offered as an example. “Roughly $1,000 a month, and that’s not possible.”

Getting the City of Pensacola to set aside $4.2 million in general funds for an Affordable Rental Housing Trust Fund would be one approach to the problem. If approved, Just Pensacola wants the city leaders to appoint an Oversight Board to provide expertise and supervise the fund.

“This would include how developers and others are solicited to get involved in building this affordable housing rental housing in Pensacola, what income levels are targeted, and to make sure that the recipients in the fund are in compliance with the procedures and milestones governing grants and loans,” Bennett said.

The Oversight Board, to include members of the city’s housing and finance department and others, would meet annually on the activities and the accomplishments of the fund and members would be subject to ten year limits.

In addition to affordable rental housing, Just Pensacola remains focused on expansion of the Civil Citation program in Escambia County.

“We’ve made really exciting progress in terms of civil citations for juveniles,” said James Westmark, who attends St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church and is a member of JUST Pensacola’s criminal justice steering committee. “(We’ve) been working on that since 2019. And since that time, the rate at which juveniles receive civil citations instead of arrests in our county has doubled.”

Westmark says they have proof that civil citations have worked for juveniles, and applaud local law enforcement for their increased use. Now efforts are shifting to try to get adults included in the program.

“In our research, we found in the arrest records of 2022 in Escambia County and the city of Pensacola, 4,067 adults were arrested and charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor,” Westmark added. “Of those 4,067, 49% were simply for nonviolent driving related offenses. So things like unpaid fee, fines and fees and license suspensions. So that’s 2,901 people that are being arrested a lot of times for simply being able to pay.”

JUST Pensacola has been working closely with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, Pensacola Police Department and State Attorney Virginia Madden and has invited them back to the Nehemiah Action Assembly because they have the power to establish an adult civil citation program.

Westmark says the request to them will be straight-forward, “There’s not an existing program, so that is the question. We’ve got a plan. Will you enact this plan?”

Getting back to the issue of affordable housing, leaders of Just Pensacola have spoken with – and invited to the assembly – Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves and all members of the city council.

For them, Bennett says there’s also one very simple question, “Will you support and enact a city of Pensacola Affordable Rental Housing Trust Fund?”

The JUST Pensacola leadership is hopeful the answer — on both fronts — will be, yes.

They’ll find out when the Nehemiah Action Assembly convenes at 6 p.m. Monday evening at First Baptist Church of Warrington, located at the corner of Gulf Beach Highway and South Merritt Street.

View the original story here.