By Jim Little, Pensacola News Journal

Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves is expecting pushback to reforms to the city’s land development code, which will likely include changes that will make it easier to build affordable rental housing in the city.

“As we start talking about land development code, that’s going to be a difficult conversation in this community,” Reeves said. “I’m just telling you. ‘Not in my neighborhood. Not in my backyard.’ And we’re talking about trying to solve this (affordable housing) at scale.”

Reeves made the comments Tuesday evening while speaking to JUST Pensacola at the First United Methodist Church of Pensacola. Reeves asked for that group’s help in advocating for land development code changes in the city that will allow for more affordable rental housing.

JUST Pensacola, which stands for Justice United Seeking Transformation in Pensacola, is an interfaith organization of 17 congregations from throughout Pensacola and Escambia County that was formed in 2019. The group has successfully advocated for the State Attorney’s Office to start an adult civil citation program in Escambia County.

The group has also advocated for policies to add affordable housing in Pensacola and Escambia County. It has previously called on the city to set aside $4.3 million a year to create an affordable housing trust fund, but Reeves rejected the idea, saying he could do more by “seizing opportunities” to create affordable housing at scale rather than tying up city funds.

Reeves was invited to speak to the group as part of a summit on affordable rental housing in Escambia County.

Reeves tried to make the case that in the year and a half that he’s been in office he’s making good on his commitment to begin tackling affordable housing in Pensacola in a serious way.

“I will say in the last year and a half, we’ll have either invested, or at this point requested, or leveraged close to $20 million for affordable housing opportunity within our city,” Reeves said.

The largest piece of that is the effort to redevelop the old Baptist Hospital campus, but Reeves said the city is also partnering with the Northwest Florida Land Trust on several affordable housing projects like the redevelopment of the Pensacola Motor Lodge and the former Malcolm Yonge Gym properties.

Reeves told the group that although they may have disagreed previously about the tactics, their goals are still aligned. He needed their help to continue making progress.

“That’s really why I’m here tonight,” Reeves said. “And as I say that us − myself and this organization − we rise above principle to try to figure out what we think is best for this community and we are aligned in that. We’re aligned in understanding that this is our greatest need. Other than keeping you safe when you leave here tonight, the next most important thing is trying to house people here. And if this was five years ago, that wouldn’t have been on any survey in the top eight or top 10 things. This is real, and it’s current.”

JUST Pensacola invited other local leaders to attend and listen to presentations from members of JUST Pensacola who talked about the struggle to find affordable housing as well as data presented by speakers from the University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies and the Florida Housing Coalition.

The information presented included a general definition of affordable housing, which means housing that costs a person or a household no more than one-third of their income every month.

Data analysis done by JUST Pensacola with the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies and Florida Housing Coalition data found there is a need of more 4,831 affordable rental units for individuals making 60% of the region’s area median income or less in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, said Ann Ray with the Florida Shimberg Center. That is despite Escambia County adding more than 5,000 rental units to the market in the last 10 years.

Ray said data shows that for a single individual to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Escambia County, they would need to earn $22 an hour.

“But the median wage for the county is about $20 an hour,” Ray said. “So that’s the wage where half the jobs pay more, half the jobs pay less. And so more than half of the jobs in Escambia County are not at the housing wage. So what do people do? As you’ve heard, they double up. Certainly, a two-income family has a much easier time renting housing than a single-income family, but people are living with roommates. Or often they’re just paying much more than they can afford for their housing, and they’re skimping on other needs.”

While funding from the government can help create affordable housing, a key piece that may make it harder to build affordable housing is zoning regulations, according to Ali Ankudowich with the Florida Housing Coalition.

“The idea here is that a lot of these requirements are intended to kind of shape development toward the community vision,” Ankudowich said. “If those requirements are too stringent, it does make it more difficult to build housing in terms of types, and where it can go, and how much can be built. So these are an important thing to look at, to allow for more housing.”

Pensacola is in the middle of an “audit” of its land development code, and a report could be presented as early as next month to the city’s planning board and City Council on aspects of the code that need to be reformed.

Reforming the city’s land development code was one of Reeves’ campaign promises. From his comments Tuesday, Reeves indicated he is expecting a tough political fight over aspects that may boost the number of multi-family housing allowed in residential areas of the city.

Reeves said he would need the members of JUST Pensacola to help advocate for reforms to boost affordable housing as the land development code rewrite ramps up over the rest of the year.

“With your support and with your continued advocacy, when things are difficult, and the conversations are difficult, I know that you will only empower us to continue to shine and continue to get to where we need to be,” Reeves said.

View the original story here.