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First resident speaks of hopes for housing

By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

TAMPA -- Belmont Heights Estates, the mixed-income community that will replace two of Tampa's most infamous public housing projects, won't be ready for occupancy until late October, but it has one of its first residents.

During a sweltering ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first phase of the $32.5-million HOPE VI project, former College Hill resident Brenda Washington learned Tuesday that she will be moving back to a neighborhood where only the grand oak trees are the same.

Washington, 35, who had moved out of the College Hill Homes shortly before the complex was bulldozed in 1999, urged the crowd of about 275 to take care of the opportunity represented by the 85 brightly painted, bungalow-style buildings.

While politicians, including the deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development, congratulated one another for their efforts on behalf of the project, Washington addressed herself to the future residents.

"The women who are coming back, we don't want our boyfriends coming in with drugs so when they get busted we have nowhere to go," said Washington, a waitress at University Community Hospital. "We need to teach our kids to respect the property. This is our future."

As she spoke she did not know whether her application to rent one of the 201 new units had been accepted. She found out minutes later when Tanya Street, the property manager of "the Villas at Belmont Heights Estates, a rental community," as it is known for marketing purposes, announced it to the crowd.

"That was a nice surprise," Washington said.

Washington, who is married and has two adolescent daughters, is typical of the transformation envisioned for this impoverished and neglected section of the city.

She had moved in and out of public housing, and been convicted of grand theft before passing the GED test and landing a job she has held for four years. She hopes to move into a market-rate rental.

The federal HOPE VI program is designed to replace the high-density public housing projects that had become physical symbols of sustained poverty. About 1,300 World War II-era units in College Hill and the adjacent Ponce de Leon Courts were torn down to make room for 856 new homes.

Of the 201 units in this phase, 102 are set aside for public housing, 67 will go to renters who receive credits on their utility bills and the remaining 32 will be rented at market rates as high as $788 for a three-bedroom unit. Eleven homes, varying in size from 1,600 to 2,000 square feet, will be for sale.

The success of this experiment depends in large part on the physical transformation of a neighborhood that was known for its crime and the occasional civil disturbance. The challenge, said architect Patrice McGinn, was to "eliminate the edge that defined this community from the rest of the city."

Long before construction began, McGinn and her fellow architects at Torti Gallas and Partners, studied the city's historic districts of Hyde Park and Seminole Heights. The airplane and camelback bungalows they produced, painted in shades of salmon, canary yellow and putty, are replete with wood trim, brackets under the gables and front porch columns.

Each unit, no matter the income level of the resident, is equipped with a computer hookup, microwave oven and dishwasher. The community center features a pool and exercise room.

Interior streets that had been closed off from the main arteries of the surrounding neighborhood have been reopened. A tall steel fence encircling the 75-acre site has been removed and with it the sense of isolation residents once felt.

Interest has been strong. Nearly 700 applications had been received as of Aug. 22. Slightly less than a third of those applicants are former residents, she said.

"We're inundated," Street said.

All applicants will undergo a stringent screening process that includes a credit check, a criminal record check, references from previous landlords and a home inspection, Street said.

"We want to ensure we have quality people," she said.

The surrounding area remains commercially depressed, but Neal Payton, the master planner on the project, said "The other side (of 22nd Street N) is going to get better. This is going to be as good as Hyde Park."

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