Lack of affordable housing in Tampa Bay Area puts pinch on teachers, first responders

ABC Action News | By Mary O’Connell | November 2, 2022

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The price of paradise is putting a pinch on some of our community’s essential workers: from teachers to first responders and nurses. Many of them are trying to make ends meet and deal with the lack of affordable housing in the region.

“Over this past summer, my rent doubled,” said Philip Belcastro, an English teacher at St. Petersburg High School.

Belcastro put plainly what some are dealing with as the cost of living rises and the Tampa Bay area faces a growing affordable housing crisis.

“Virtually every teacher I know is looking at applications for other school districts, other jobs entirely, and sadly, it’s not because we want to leave the profession. It’s because we can’t afford it,” said Belcastro.

Now, unique solutions are popping up to help address the problem.

The Pinellas County School District has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the development and management of teacher and staff housing at the historic Tomlinson building in downtown St. Petersburg.

Wednesday also marked a grand opening in downtown Sarasota with 76 general affordable workforce units and 52 specifically reserved for teachers, firefighters, law enforcement, and nurses.

“We’re trying to work as hard as we can to ensure that the people that serve our community have the opportunity to enjoy the community,” said City of Sarasota Commissioner Hagen Brody.

ABC Action News took a closer look at teacher salaries. According to data released earlier this year from the National Education Association in Florida for 2020-2021, the average teacher starting salary was about $44,000, while the average teacher salary was about $51,000.

Brennen Pickett has been a teacher for six years.

“When you hear we’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s literally that,” said Pickett. “One of my paychecks goes towards my bills, and my other paycheck goes towards my rent.”

The problem isn’t isolated to just teachers either.

“A firefighter in the area probably starts in the low $40,000 range, and then after about 10 to 15 years would reach the max pay of about $65,000,” said Michael Lewis.

Lewis is with the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters.

“We have more and more firefighters, especially those that are within the first five to ten years of their career, that are looking to buy homes, to start a family, that are just unable to afford to live in Pinellas County, especially St. Pete,” said Lewis. “Most of them are looking, and they’re moving even into Pasco, Hernando, Polk County, south of the Skyway, and it’s making their commutes longer, and they’re just unable to afford to live locally where we work.”

The continued growth is often outpacing what’s affordable, with the hope there’s more help to support those who keep our communities strong.

“There’s going to be a day when you have good teachers at A schools like St. Petersburg High School who are just leaving because we cannot afford to be here anymore,” said Belcastro.

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