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A Times Editorial

Stereotyping complexes is misplaced and divisive

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

Plans are in the works for three apartment complexes, totaling more than 700 units, to be built near the existing subdivisions of Seven Hills, Silverthorn and Regency Oaks. That, in itself, is unremarkable in a county that is growing as fast as Hernando.

But, because the apartments have been labeled "affordable" and the developers are taking advantage of a federal program that allows them to finance the venture with tax-exempt bonds, residents are up in arms. Because of a negative image they associate with metropolitan areas, to them "affordable" means substandard mini-communities destined to attract undesirable tenants who will allow the properties to become rundown.

As stereotypes go, it's an understandable one, but it simply does not apply in this instance, and residents who are complaining to the County Commission should curb their overreaction.

Opponents of the developments are basing their objections on misinformation and intolerance that will create divisiveness and resentment when the apartments eventually are built.

And, unless the developers voluntarily withdraw their plans, the apartments almost certainly will be built.

Permissible and needed

The zoning is permitted under the county's master plan, which was in place before construction began on any of the three more affluent, single-family housing developments that are near the proposed apartments. The County Commission cannot legally justify changing that zoning now to block the plans of developers who already have submitted plans. If the commission took such a wrong-headed action, it would wind up costing residents untold legal expenses to fight one or more court battles it had no hope of winning.

But, more to the point, the housing should be built because it is needed. It is needed for the working people with children who provide the service industry jobs that residents in the more upscale developments rely on. It is needed by school teachers, secretaries, firefighters, store clerks and deputy sheriffs who earn barely enough to make ends meet. And it is needed by lower-income retirees who are trying to stretch their life savings for as many years as possible.

These are people who cannot afford mortgages and whose transportation options are limited. They need to be close to existing shopping centers, recreational facilities and schools. That's why the land-use master plan long ago dictated their placement.

The apartments under review would attract those tenants, who earn less than 60-percent of the median income for the Tampa Bay region. That threshold is about $45,000. The wage requirements would range from $21,000 a year maximum for a one-person household, to $30,000 for a four-person household.

Unlike fully subsidized federal housing where the tenants pay nothing -- sometimes referred to as Section 8 housing -- residents at the proposed apartments would pay between $500 and $800 a month for rent, plus utilities. The developers recoup the money they lose from charging lower rent by obtaining federally mandated tax credits, which gives them access to tax-exempt bonds.

Buyer beware

The nearby homeowners who oppose the apartment complexes also should consider their own culpability.

Before buying a home -- the most expensive purchase most folks make -- reasonable people check out the neighborhood. That doesn't mean just driving around to ensure that properties are well-kept, or to see if a sewer plant or a chicken farm is operating across the street. It means looking beyond the obvious, which, at a minimum includes examining land-use maps to see how undeveloped properties in the area are zoned, or to see whether the parcel is in a flood zone. It's a fundamental responsibility that rests directly on the shoulders of the home buyer.

Residents who are threatening to punish commissioners at the polls this fall for not stopping the apartments are being unreasonable. No commissioner or commission candidate can selectively rezone to prevent these projects. Neither can any state legislator. Yet, that did not stop Rep. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, from shamelessly pandering to residents -- make that potential voters -- who oppose the apartments and who this year just happen to fall into the Senate district he covets.

It is reasonable, however, for residents to insist that the commission expedite its review of the land-use map and make changes that would govern future requests.

For now, it falls to commissioners, their staff and the developers to bring this debate into perspective by dispelling the myth that all affordable housing projects resemble the inner-city high-rises prevalent in the 1960s and '70s. This housing is very different and it is more than affordable; it is appropriate and greatly needed.

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