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A safety net full of holes

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2002

The porches are small, but large enough for residents to sit on and talk to neighbors who pass by.

The sidewalks are short and narrow, but just right for a boy who has just learned to ride a bicycle.

On the surface, it is a pleasant place. On the surface, it has the potential to again be the healthy community that nurtured folks such as City Council chairwoman Rene Flowers and actor Angela Bassett.

Gone are the barracks-style apartments of a few years ago that in the heyday of crack were more prison than home. Gone are the iron-bar fences built to slow the pace of fleeing suspects.

Jordan Park, the storied public housing complex in St. Petersburg, has a new look thanks to a $27-million federal grant. The old forbidding boxes of apartments were razed and sprightly colored townhouses built to replace them.

There is space now and breathing room.

But there is also an uproar, a lawsuit and residents clamoring to leave.

In acquiring its new look, Jordan Park also acquired new management. Landex Corp., which helped rebuild the complex, replaced the St. Petersburg Housing Authority as its manager. Landex is based in Baltimore.

Peggy Simpson has spent the past couple of weeks scrambling to meetings and calling anyone she thought offered the possibility of relief for her daughter, who lives in Jordan Park and whose rent is being more than doubled, from $227 to $481.

All the meetings and the calls got her nothing more than the other tenants received -- a couple of months' reprieve on paying the higher rent.

Landex says its computer made an error in initially computing the rent of nearly 80 percent of the residents.

Many residents are saying they made an error in choosing to move there.

"For this kind of rent, she could be getting a house," Simpson said of her daughter. They are looking into financing a home purchase.

Once again in St. Petersburg, the safety net that public housing is supposed to be for low-income families has a rip in it big enough for little people to fall through.

It happened a dozen years ago when Laurel Park, another public housing complex, was bulldozed into a parking lot for the city's then-new stadium.

Laurel Park residents were serenaded with promises of help relocating to houses scattered throughout the city. Many were successfully relocated. Many others struggled for almost five years before the housing authority could wrest subsidy money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist them with privately owned rental properties. The housing authority lost track of others.

And that happened under local management.

Jordan Park residents heard the same song as officials prepared to raze the old 446-unit complex and replace it with about 230 new ones, some of which are still under construction.

Jordan Park is in the heart of Midtown, a district that is the focus of city administration's economic development efforts. It is a block off 22nd Street, once the heart and soul of the city's black population. The emptying of Jordan Park is often cited as the blow that knocked the final gasps from several of the few remaining merchants along the street who relied largely on the patronage of Jordan Park residents.

Mayor Baker hopes to resuscitate the street.

A few blocks north of Jordan Park, city officials are hoping to develop an industrial park, with the promise of jobs for area residents.

But that, at this point for many residents, is just a different verse of a song they've heard before. Residents were promised jobs and opportunities as their homes were leveled under the dome and its parking lots.

In Midtown, unfulfilled promises have become the expectation, and talk of progress makes people duck to avoid becoming another victim of it.

City administrators are powerless to intervene in the current flap at Jordan Park. The housing authority, however, needs to exert whatever sway it retains on Jordan Park's absentee landlord to ensure that its tenants aren't the ones stuck with the full tab for Landex's mistake.

If they can't repair the safety net, the least they should do is explore every avenue for ways to soften the fall for displaced residents.

No, the new Jordan Park is nothing like it used to be. They've turned it into a pleasant community.

For somebody.

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