Tampa Bay Area Businessman Brian Butler doesn’t want other Black men to repeat his experiences entering the local job market.
In 2006, Butler moved to the area as a retired U.S. Army officer with two master’s degrees. He expected to land a good job quickly but got no offers that met his qualifications. So, Butler took matters into his own hands. He started his own public relations and marketing firm, Vistra Communications in Lutz, and built it from the ground up into a success.
A recent report highlighting stark racial inequalities in earnings, education, and housing in the Tampa Bay Area, Butler says, provides statistical evidence to such community-wide adversity that Blacks and other minorities too often face.
The Regional Equity Report from the Tampa Bay Partnership, in conjunction with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast, looks at U.S. Census Bureau data in 21 economic and quality-of-life indicators. It found that the region’s Black residents face significant gaps in wages, poverty rates, homeownership, student achievement, and broadband access.
Overall, nearly one in four Black residents in Tampa Bay are living in poverty, while the rate for White residents is below 11 percent. The gap for Black children is more dramatic -- with more than one-in-three living in poverty, compared to 13 percent of the region’s White children.
There’s an approximately 20 percent gap in wages across education levels, including for Black professionals with bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
Butler says the findings are sobering but not surprising.
“When I look at our community overall and I see this, I think it’s really sad,” he says. “The issues raised in that report, they affect me as a business leader. They affect the people I am trying to employ. They affect the quality of life of the people around us.”
Butler prioritizes minority hiring at Vistra, where he estimates 48 percent of the employees are non-White. It’s a conscious effort to provide opportunities and create a diverse workplace where different points-of-view and perspectives are represented.
Now, as a co-chair of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s new Racial Equity Task Force, he is part of a wider community effort to level the economic playing field in the region and address other quality of life gaps in the report.
“The next phase is, now that we know this, how do we make our community better,” Butler says. “From my point-of-view, it’s my hope that the work of the committee will help keep the next African American guy who moves to Tampa from going through what I went through. I want to help businesses understand why it’s important to reverse some of the data in this report. Maybe people will think a little differently about some of the hiring decisions within their company. If we can also help large corporations understand why it’s important to do business with minority businesses in this community, look how far that can go. When minority businesses are thriving, then they are hiring and helping people support themselves and have a better quality of life.”
Unacceptable racial disparities
The Tampa Bay Partnership has published an annual Regional Competitiveness Report looking at how Tampa Bay’s economy stacks up against peer metropolitan areas nationwide for four years. But the report released in August is the first focusing on racial equities and disparities.
It comes in the middle of a tumultuous year that has included national protests for racial justice and a COVID-19 pandemic that has laid bare racial disparities in health outcomes. Tampa Bay Partnership President and CEO Rick Homans says the public policy research and advocacy group launched the report to “take an unbiased look at the racial disparities that exist in our community” and “help public, private, and nonprofit leaders better understand these disparities, and set goals to diminish and, eventually, eliminate them.”
“Recent events have reinforced the vivid history and continued presence of systemic racism and unacceptable racial disparities in our country, and our region,” Homans says “As a coalition of business leaders, we realize we have a powerful platform to work with partners and stakeholders in Tampa Bay. Our goal is to create a more inclusive community where every person has equitable access to opportunity, regardless of what they look like or where they live.”
Addressing gaps in the community
Shortly after taking office, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor unveiled the Transforming Tampa’s Tomorrow, or T3, plan to guide the city on multiple issues, including housing affordability, workforce and economic development, and transportation, that are also areas of concern in the Regional Equity Report.
“The city is very mindful of the results and the disparities in that report,” says Tampa’s Development and Economic Opportunity Administrator Carole Post. “We think the mayor’s strategic priorities align with solutions that would help change the trajectory of those trends that are not headed in the right direction and address the gaps in our community. The mayor’s priorities are to create opportunity and prosperity for all.”
Attainable, affordable housing for renters and homeowners is one priority in Tampa’s plan. Right now, the supply of affordable housing does not meet demand and the city has set the goal of 10,000 additional units by 2027 through both public and private projects.
It’s an area of overall community need, more so for Black residents. The Tampa Bay Partnership report shows the region’s more than 32 percent difference in homeownership rates -- more than 73 percent for White residents and less than 41 percent for Black residents -- is the 15th worst out of 20 peer metropolitan areas.
A late August presentation to the Tampa City Council from Post and Housing & Community Development Manager Vanessa McCleary shows the city’s affordable housing plans taking shape. One strategy geared for renters who cannot afford a traditional home purchase combines private fundraising and a community land trust.
Under it, One Tampa, the nonprofit the city established to raise donations and provide grants to businesses impacted by COVID, would shift its focus to raising money for affordable housing. As the charity arm of the city, the organization would manage and oversee a community land trust that retains ownership of properties where houses are built for buyers who could not otherwise afford a home. The buyer purchases the home and leases the land from the community land trust for 99 years, eliminating the costs of purchasing the property that drives up the price of home sales.
City officials are looking at a slew of other tools to spur affordable housing development. They include incentives such as density bonuses, reduced parking requirements, waiving sidewalk construction requirements where there is no existing sidewalk to connect with, and loosening some tree replacement requirements. The city’s looking at zoning and land development code changes to facilitate affordable housing and waiving water and sewer impact fees for new affordable housing construction.
After several months of delay from COVID, the city’s newly-established Economic Advisory Committee, which has more than 20 members from across the economy, has also started meeting on strategies to improve and continue to grow the local economy. Gender and racial equity are a focus point of the group.
Former Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, now a candidate for the Hillsborough County Commission, says the more significant negative health and economic impacts of COVID on the Black population threaten to widen existing disparities. Education, workforce development, income, transportation, and housing access are all connected issues, he says, and improving one area will help in others.
Cohen says he wants the county government to take more steps to incentivize affordable housing, meeting the need, reducing sprawl, and allowing people to live in closer proximity to work. He also laments the fact that the transportation sales tax voters approved in 2018 remains tied up in a legal challenge. That tax could fund the type of fixed guideway system that developers will build near, helping improve the transportation system and access to affordable housing, and creating jobs.
Creating equity through education
Four years ago, a group of 17 community partners, including the University of South Florida Hillsborough Community College, St. Pete College, local public school systems, governments, and nonprofits, joined together to establish the LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network to increase the number of working-age adults with degrees.
Chuck Tiernan, the Senior Director of the LEAP Network for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, which manages the program, says providing those post-secondary educational opportunities can help improve economic standing and other quality of life issues.
Last year, LEAP introduced a new initiative, Complete Tampa Bay, which is designed to help people who started but did not finish college or technical training return to complete their education.
Tiernan estimates there are 330,000 such people living in the region, many of them people of color. He says the Racial Equity Report reinforces the importance of the program, which uses coaches to work with individuals to identify the educational opportunities, financial aid, and tutoring assistance available to them. They also look for opportunities for returning students who have been in the workforce to receive course credit for their work experience.
“Data like that shines a light on areas where communities can work to bring together an effort addressing economic opportunity, mobility and prosperity,” Tiernan says. “People getting credentials to get better and more prosperous jobs in our workforce is a solution to help move the needle. This report certainly validates we are working in the right direction and gives that much more data to point to and say, ‘this is an important program.’ Because we know education is an important step to creating equity and the ability to achieve prosperity.”
Change has to start at some point
Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis says the next step is for business leaders and government officials to acknowledge systemic racism exists and move beyond committees and studies and work for real change.
Lewis says the NAACP will continue to advocate for area companies and governments to hire and promote more minorities and award more contracts to minority-owned businesses. Often, she says, businesses don’t realize they are lacking diversity because there is no one there to raise the subject.
Lewis also wants to see increased public and private investment in minority communities, with significant community input to guide those decisions.
“They have put qualitative data to support something we have known for years,” Lewis says. “We have always known there was a huge disparity in economic development, housing, the job market. What they did is solidify it by showing the numbers. Where we go from here all depends on the city, county, and the companies. If they want to improve, they have the opportunity to improve. If they don’t, then it will go back to business as usual. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Change has to start at some point.”
For more information on the report, visit: Regional Equity Report
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