By Rebecca Liebson, Tampa Bay Times

A disabled son whose monthly Social Security check pays less than the average rent. A 70-year-old forced to delay retirement so he can pay bills. A recent college grad who commutes over an hour because she can’t afford to live near work.

Religious leaders from the advocacy group Faith and Action for Strength Together say they hear stories like this every day from congregants crippled by rising housing costs in the Tampa Bay area.

The coalition of 52 religious congregations across Pinellas County is pushing St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch to add 5,000 new homes for the city’s neediest residents by the end of his first term in 2026. Though the mayor has released his own plan to produce and preserve 7,800 units of affordable housing over the next decade, religious leaders said that’s not enough.

“Doing justice is part of what we’re called on to do as clergy people,” said the Rev. Tim Ehrlich, a retired pastor from Oakhurst United Methodist Church. “Sometimes that brings us into conflict with the powers that be.”

Welch said the group has unfairly criticized him without laying out a path for how the city could meet the group’s more ambitious goal.

“At this point, I am fully confident that we’re doing everything we can,” Welch said.

Faith and Action in Strength Together has been lobbying local politicians and winning reforms in criminal justice, health care and education since 2004. It’s part of a nationwide movement with sister organizations across the country.

The group has a proven track record on affordable housing. It’s convinced county officials, including Welch when he was chairperson of the County Commission, to dedicate more funding to the cause on several occasions.

Now, the Pinellas coalition has turned its focus to St. Petersburg. In the past five years, median rent in the city has spiked from $1,320 a month to $1,745, a 32% increase, according to data from commercial real estate firm CoStar.

Faith and Action in Strength Together is calling on the city to build 5,000 units of affordable housing by the end of 2026. The group wants to target households making up to 80% of the area median income, which is no more than $53,520 for an individual or $76,400 for a family of four.

Welch ran on the promise of tackling the affordable housing crisis. Last year, he announced an expansion of the city’s existing “Housing Opportunities For All” plan, pledging to add an additional 1,050 affordable homes for a total of 7,800 units by 2030.

So far, 1,958 units are complete and at least 3,116 more are underway.

Welch’s plan counts new units as well as existing homes that the city will preserve as affordable housing toward his goal. In some cases, the city will subsidize rent. In others, the city will provide funding to help residents buy or maintain single-family homes.

Welch said this is a cost-effective way to fight gentrification. Once affordable units are lost, it becomes much more expensive to replace them.

The mayor’s office did not say how many new units would be built by 2030. A progress report the mayor’s office sent to the Tampa Bay Times shows that at least 3,700 of the total 7,800 units would be preserved, not created.

So far, 1,846 of the units added through the program have been built from the ground up, according to an email from the mayor’s managing director for communications and community engagement, Alizza T. Punzalan-Randle.

The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church called the mayor’s plan misleading. “It makes it seem like he’s doing a lot more than he actually is,” he said. He noted that continued population growth and rising prices over the next decade will only add to the existing crisis. “If we don’t act fast, firefighters, teachers, nurses — we will lose them. We are already losing them.”

Faith leaders have also expressed concerns about what the mayor considers affordable.

Several of the units included in the mayor’s plan are designated as “workforce housing” for residents who make up to 120% of the area median income. That’s $80,280 for a single person or $114,600 for a family of four.

Welch said in some cases, it’s impossible to fund new developments without including these higher-earning renters.

The religious group wants the city to direct all of its resources toward building housing for those making up to 80% of the area median income.

“They are the most vulnerable,” Ward said.

The mayor did not say how many of the total units would be available at this income threshold once the plan is complete. Still, 90% of the units the city has added so far and 74% of the units in progress target that group.

“The City of St. Petersburg works closely with developers in the early stages of the planning and approval process to negotiate AMI levels that best meets the needs of our community,” Punzalan-Randle, wrote in an email.

Welch said Faith and Action in Strength Together has a history of making unreasonable demands without providing tangible solutions. “How would they suggest we pay for that with our budget?” he asked. “It’s easy to say it’s not enough but again, show us some other resources or solutions or partnerships to get there.”

In an open letter responding to the group’s critiques, Welch said he wants to promote statewide legislation that would empower faith-based organizations to develop affordable housing on their land.

Faith and Action in Strength Together did not lay out a specific plan for how to fund 5,000 new affordable units. In an email sent to the Times, the group of faith leaders said the city could look into leveraging tax credits or creating an affordable housing trust fund, among other things.

“We are confident that if the Mayor and his staff want to hit this goal, they have the talents and resources to be able to do so,” the group wrote. “We believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Welch has faced pushback from other religious leaders over the city’s plan to redevelop Tropicana Field. A group called Faith in Florida has said public funds should be directed toward building affordable housing, not a new baseball stadium.

Across the bay, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s affordable housing plan has also faced scrutiny. The mayor said she was more than halfway to reaching her goal of 10,000 new affordable homes by the end of 2027. But a review from the Times found that only about 1,300 are finished. Castor counted hundreds of dwellings outside city limits, as well as projects in which her administration played little or no role toward her goal.

Ward said Faith and Action in Strength Together has spent months trying to convince Welch to meet with them.

Welch said he has offered several times to meet with the group’s affordable housing committee, but that they’ve turned him down, stating that the entire coalition should be present. The group canceled a meeting proposed for April 3, opting instead to have a prayer vigil outside City Hall.

“That’s really not the way to do things,” Welch said.

On April 30, Faith and Action for Strength Together will hold its annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, where congregants and community leaders gather to discuss the group’s priorities for the year. Affordable housing will be front and center.

Ward said his organization has extended an invitation to Welch and hopes to see him there.

Welch’s office did not say whether he plans to attend.

View the original story here.