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Affordable and nice

Residents and neighbors of two affordable housing complexes in Central Florida love where they live.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Ready to try her swimming skills, Nachaly Alvarado, 2, rushes to meet her mom, Charlotte, in the pool of the Mystic Point Apartments near Disney World.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


CLERMONT -- Before Sept. 11, life was easier for Nilda Ramos.

Her husband, Ramon Valle, made decent money working for Buena Vista Construction, and she supplemented the family income babysitting. Paying the $800-a-month rent and basics such as utilities never was a problem.

The area economy swooned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, though, and the company issued pink slips. Valle got one. Moving was not a choice -- it had become a necessity.

The family relocated to Raintree Apartments, about 20 minutes west of Walt Disney World on U.S. 27. Apartments there are reserved for people whose incomes fall below the area yearly median, and rents are correspondingly lower.

In government lingo, they're known as "affordable housing." To people like Ramos, they have proved a lifesaver.

"At least we could handle the rent here, $580 (including utilities). That's not bad. And it's nice inside," said Ramos, a 55-year-old grandmother. "I don't consider this a slum. It's a good place to live, over here. You can sit down. The benches are nice. Nobody bothers you. I feel pretty safe here, to tell you the truth."

This is the type of housing, and the kind of person, hundreds of Hernando County residents are fighting to keep from their neighborhoods. Their point, in angry letters and comments to commissioners, is clear.

"Should you approve the creating of this "high crime' neighborhood, and that is what it will be, down the road from ours, I will join any mobilization to have our property taxes drastically reduced as well as doing that which is needed to vote you out when you come up for re-election," Dorothy and Richard Lower said in an e-mail to the commission.

Norita Davis is co-owner of Newberry-based Davis Construction Group, which built Raintree and has proposed Barclay Forge Apartments across the street from the Silverthorn development in Hernando County. In 25 years of building affordable apartments throughout the Southeast, Davis, who heads the company's property management division, has heard the complaints many times before.

"We always get that from the homeowners nearby, because they have the vision of welfare mothers, and they're afraid of that," she said. "But after they're built, people who have been complaining, some of their relatives will come to join us. . . . Once it is built, they see it's not the scary thing they thought it was."

Built to fit neighborhood, priced to fit pocketbook

A red-brick and black-marble sign marks the entry to Raintree Apartments, which opened in October. Mature canary date palms, worth more than $1,000 each, line the drive to the fenced complex.

Just across the entrance road, two subdivisions have begun to sprout. Homes there range in price from $126,800 to $241,900, not including options such as a second-floor master suite and deck. The land that fronts U.S. 27 is cleared in anticipation of up to 200,000 square feet of retail development, including restaurants, a grocery store, an Eckerd drugstore and a McDonald's.

According to the Lake County Growth and Development Department, none of the nearby landowners opposed the apartments during the planning stages.

Inside the fence at Raintree, 14 three-story buildings house 313 units. They have brick facades on the first floor, and khaki-colored wood siding on the top floors.

The property includes a large swimming pool, tennis courts, a playground, a workout room and a clubhouse. Tall sabal palms, Indian hawthorn, plumbago, lantana and other types of greenery make up the landscaping.

Apartments range in size from two to four bedrooms, 953 square feet to 1,298 square feet. The floors are solid beneath the gray or blue carpeting, as are the eggshell white walls. The interior doors are easily punctured hollow plywood.

From the hum of the air conditioning units to the sweet-smelling humidity of the laundry room, they materially differ little from most other apartment complexes.

The big distinction is the entry requirements.

To qualify to live at Raintree and other affordable properties, potential tenants must fill out a lengthy application, most of which asks intimate details of their financial status. They also must sign a form agreeing to a criminal background check.

People with a criminal past are turned away. People who earn too much, or not enough, also must look elsewhere. Only those who can afford the rent with their steady but meager income -- from work or some other legitimate source -- may live there.

That's part of the deal developers strike in accepting government tax credits and bonds to build the complexes.

"Subsidized housing is where the government actually picks up some of the rent," explained Connie Slater, area supervisor for Davis Property Management. "This, the tenant pays all of their rent."

Well kept, well run: 'I'm happy, very happy.'

Barbara Fischer, a 61-year-old retired nursing assistant, appreciates the consideration.

Fischer moved to Florida from Michigan about two years ago, seeking relief for her aching joints. Her only income comes from Social Security and a pension -- about $350 a week -- and she quickly found that the money did not stretch far in supporting herself and her 36-year-old medically disabled, unemployed daughter.

"The (first) apartment we came from didn't have anything," she said, "but it was breaking us."

Rent plus utilities for their two-bedroom apartment neared $1,000 a month, she said. Their affordable three-bedroom apartment costs just $580, including utilities.

Sitting in the air-conditioned complex clubhouse, they said they love where they live.

"The playground is noisy, but that's kids," Barbara Fischer said. "They have good trash pickup and mail. When you call and you need something done, it gets done within the week rather than within six months. . . . It surprises me, yes, the way it's well kept. . . . I'm happy, very happy."

Willie Mae McCrae, 37, works in the Heart of Florida Hospital emergency room. She paused from waxing her car to say her biggest concern about the apartments is not the way the place looks, or even necessarily the people who live there.

After all, she noted, most work hard to support their families and just want a nice place to call home.

Rather, McCrae said, she wanted more security for the complex.

"I think it should be gated, that's for sure," she said. "How would that help? With the little jittybugs that come through here at night."

Teenagers who do not live at Raintree often enter to use the swimming pool and other amenities, she complained. A place is as good as its people, McCrae observed, and she really likes the place.

"I just hope it will be a better place," she said.

Study: Need exists for more affordable housing

Who moves into an affordable housing complex depends much upon its location.

In Hernando County, Housing Authority director Donnie Singer has projected that many of the residents will be like Fischer -- retirees on limited incomes. The apartments also are likely to attract workers in low-paying jobs, he said.

Todd Fabbri of the Richman Group of Florida, which plans to build a 176-unit affordable apartment complex at Seven Hills, noted that a county-sponsored economic development study conducted by the University of Florida showed the need.

In the section on housing costs, the report states: "The only concerns cited by several of the businesses interviewed was a perceived lack of affordable housing, in terms of rental housing or low-cost housing for workers."

Several such jobs exist, according to the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Without listing companies, the department advertises such positions as a driver, paying $16,640 a year; a maintenance technician, paying $21,091; a nursing assistant, paying $18,720; and a swing cook, paying $20,800.

A single person who earns $21,240 annually would qualify for affordable housing in Hernando County. A family of four could have a maximum income of $30,300 and still qualify.

Not that the rents would be that much lower than regular apartments already serving Brooksville and Spring Hill.

Spring Haven Apartments, slated for Seven Hills, has set rents starting at $473 a month for a one-bedroom, $568 for a two-bedroom, and $656 for a three-bedroom.

By comparison, Candleglow Apartments in Brooksville charges $475 a month for a large one-bedroom and $575 for a two-bedroom. Suncoast Villas near Silverthorn charges $675 to $700 for its two-bedroom apartments. Forest Oaks Villas in Spring Hill, a retirement complex, charges $595 a month for a two-bedroom.

Affordable apartments give people a lifeline

Mystic Pointe II, a year-old affordable apartment complex next to Walt Disney World near Orlando, attracts mainly employees from area restaurants, hotels, theme parks and related businesses.

Financed by the Richman Group, built and managed by the Davis Group, the complex -- which is nearly identical to Raintree -- sits next to the Class A-rated Alexandria Apartments, where a one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment starts at $695. A two-bedroom/two-bathroom unit at Mystic Pointe II rents for $601.

A manager for Alexandria would not be quoted, but said generally her tenants have no problems with the neighboring affordable housing complex. The biggest complaint she heard has been from people who didn't qualify for Mystic Pointe II and wanted to know why Alexandria cost so much.

When potential clients stop at Mystic Pointe II, manager Rita Fargas said, "The first question is, "How is the crime?' "

In a year, she said, the only crime she knew of was one stolen car. Only four people had been evicted, for failure to pay the rent.

Resident Carlos Dennett, a district manager at a local store, said he usually stays up until 3 a.m. and never hears police sirens, domestic disputes, drug dealing or any other problems.

But resident Brenda Rivera, a 29-year-old title clerk for Budget Rent-a-Car, said she could relate to the people who might think otherwise.

"I tell people I live in affordable housing, right away they think, "You're living in the 'hood,' " she said, while walking to her apartment from the mailboxes. "My experience here is, no."

The crime rate might be higher than in other areas, Rivera acknowledged. But "bad situations happen in all places, in all levels of income."

She noted that her $10 hourly wage is about the same that people earned who had the job five years ago. She called the affordable apartments a "lifeline," adding: "My bracket is limited to places like this because of what we are making."

Charlotte Alvarado, 20, earns $6.15 an hour plus tips at Joe's Crab Shack. Her boyfriend and roommate works for BBB Cleaning, earning only a little more.

When they moved to Orlando from New Jersey, Alvarado said, their first thought of affordable housing also was "way ghetto."

"We thought this was really nice," she said, smothered in Australian Gold tanning lotion next to the swimming pool, her 2-year-old daughter Nachaly playing nearby. "I was real surprised they were so nice and cheap."

Nachaly has children to play with, the neighbors are friendly, and the police patrol each night, she observed.

"It's really hard to convince someone to (understand) somewhere they don't know," Alvarado said. "I like it. I'm not going to move any time soon."

-- Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to

solochek@sptimes.com.

Housing workshop Hernando County commissioners will conduct a public workshop about affordable housing issues at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Springstead Theatre, 3300 Mariner Blvd. Topics will include zoning, comprehensive planning, permitting, transportation and traffic, financing, water and crime. Thirty minutes will be set aside between each presentation for questions from the audience, with additional time for public comment at the end of the program. For information, call 754-4000.

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