The question for the candidates was simple: What can St. Petersburg’s mayor do to improve severely depressed housing values in Midtown?
Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman both talked about chasing grants to improve the struggling area, which stretches from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S and Fourth Street to 34th Street.
Kriseman credited Tampa for successfully raking in federal dollars for "affordable housing initiatives." He did not elaborate. Foster said Tampa gets more federal money because "they probably need the money more."
"Tampa got more money because they scored higher on the blight scoring system, so they've got a much bigger problem than we do," Foster said.
Intrigued by Foster’s claim, PolitiFact Florida decided to investigate how the cities compare in terms of a "blight scoring system" and if Tampa indeed is worse off when compared to St. Petersburg.
Is it really more problems, more money?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, awards billions of dollars in grants to cities, counties and states each year. Some of the awards are known as "entitlement grants," based on formulas. Others are competitive, based on who has the best plan.
Allies of Kriseman sounded the alarm on Foster’s response in the forum. To them, Kriseman obviously was talking about a $30 million federal grant the Tampa Housing Authority won last year for Encore Tampa, an urban redevelopment project aiming to transform the Central Park/Ybor neighborhood formerly home to a public housing complex.
It wasn’t that Tampa received the Choice Neighborhoods grant over St. Petersburg because it simply has a bigger need for the money. St. Petersburg did not apply for it, even after Foster directed the city’s former contracts and grants officer, Wayne Finley, to explore a similar transformative proposal for the neighborhood around Citrus Grove Apartments at 731 15th St. S.
"It was very clear to me, two years in a row, that he promised to apply," said St. Petersburg City Council chairman Karl Nurse, who pushed for the Choice Neighborhoods initiative.
It’s accurate to say the city decided not to pursue that grant, a fact confirmed by city and federal officials.
But that’s not what Foster said he was talking about when he brought up the scoring system based on "blight." In a brief chat, Foster clarified he was talking about a dollar disparity when considering an array of housing and urban improvement grants, not just Choice Neighborhoods.
"I tasked my housing department to advise me on how Tampa is getting grant monies that we are coming for," he said. "Their response was, it’s based upon a scoring system, and Tampa qualified because they had more issues."
There are still issues with what Foster said
Problem is, a "blight scoring system" does not really exist. A HUD spokesman was perplexed by Foster’s comment, saying there’s no easy comparative analysis for "blight" between Tampa and St. Petersburg, or other cities for that matter.
But for certain grants, cities get the money based on formulas that take into account an area’s population, poverty and, in some cases, foreclosure picture.
Foster had city officials answer our follow-ups. Joshua Johnson, director of the housing department, directed us to fiscal year 2012-13 allocations for Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG. Tampa received $2.8 million and St. Petersburg got $1.6 million.
The formula for CDBGs is based on a mix of measures, including population, housing overcrowding, and the extent of residents living in poverty. Tampa exceeds St. Petersburg in all three of those measures, according to HUD data.
Normally, Johnson said, if a city has more people, it also has more people who earn lower incomes. According to 2012 Census estimates, Tampa had 347,645 residents, and St. Petersburg had 246,541. Tampa also had a greater share of residents below the poverty level, at 19.2 percent compared to 15.3 percent in St. Petersburg.
Foster was trying to articulate that HUD looks at the age and condition of a city's housing stock when considering how to award certain money, and "clearly if you're going to look at those two factors, blight is part of that," said Clarence Scott, city leisure and community services administrator.
For instance, the city of St. Petersburg conducted a blight study of the city’s Southside area in pushing to declare it a Community Redevelopment Area. The purpose of that study was just to prove the city is deserving; not to compare it to other places. Similarly, Tampa conducted a blight study in 2006 of the Central Park/Ybor neighborhood that qualified as a CRA and later received the Choice Neighborhoods grant.
In 2008, Congress authorized HUD under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act to start the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which provides grants that help states and local governments rehab, re-sell or demolish foreclosed or abandoned homes. More money was dedicated to the program in the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 Dodd-Frank banking reforms.
Tampa and St. Petersburg each received money for the first and third phases of the program, and Tampa got more -- $18.3 million compared to St. Petersburg’s $13.2 million. The Tampa Housing Authority received a second, competitive grant of $38 million that the city shared to build low-income housing. St. Petersburg tried to win a second-round grant but was not chosen. This program distributes money based on the number of home foreclosures, the number of homes financed by a subprime mortgage loan, and the number of homes in default.
"Perhaps Foster is simply noting, albeit awkwardly, that you can’t fault him for failing to bring in HUD dollars that are based on formulae for which blight and poverty characteristics are key variables," said Elizabeth Strom, a University of South Florida urban planning professor. "But I am not aware of any ‘blight scoring system’ that would be used across programs."
Shrugging off the implication that he is sitting back and letting Tampa collect federal affordable housing grants, Foster said Tampa gets more money because they scored higher on the "blight scoring system."
In the end, Foster is right that Tampa generally gets more money in entitlement grants (not even considering competitive grants). But that’s as much a matter of population and poverty as anything else. A "blight scoring system" does not exist by that name.
Foster’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.