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Clearwater housing still struggling

The old Greenwood Apartments received millions in 2002, but many units stand empty and residents ask whether anything has changed.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published January 30, 2005


CLEARWATER - Investors and donors poured $14-million into renovating Greenwood Apartments in 2002.

Government and community leaders tout the remodeled housing as the heart of their neighborhood revitalization efforts. Bank of America, a primary investor in the project, showed before and after pictures of the apartments in a commercial that ran during the Olympics.

But more than two years after the spruced up two-story buildings reopened, 36 of the 192 units, nearly 20 percent, are empty, and the property's owners are losing money each month.

If they don't turn things around by May, at least some of a $6.5-million loan from Fannie Mae will be in jeopardy, and Bank of America will be forced to make up the difference.

"It's been a tough battle," said Elizabeth Kirschner, area property manager for the JMG Affordable Housing Group. "We've tried everything."

Workers have revamped the buildings, inside and out, peeling away the lead-based paint and installing new appliances. They planted trees and grass in courtyards once covered with dirt. To match the new image, property managers gave the apartments a new name, Palmetto Park Apartments, and hired a marketing firm to promote the new facilities.

At a meeting this month, the Clearwater City Council tried to help them make ends meet.

The council voted to restructure the city's $1-million loan to the project by converting the loan into a cash-flow type mortgage. That means that property owners will have to start paying it off only once they start making a profit.

"This is one of our cornerstones of redevelopment for North Greenwood, so we all have a lot at stake if this were to keep going down," Howie Carroll, the city's assistant housing director, told the City Council.

A problem of perception?

People move into Palmetto Park, but then they move out. Some can't afford to pay their rent, Kirschner said. Others are scared off by the neighborhood.

Officials say crime in North Greenwood has dropped dramatically. But the area still has a bad reputation.

"Some of the problem I suspect is that of perception," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "Sometimes the way that community is painted is unfair and inaccurate."

In fact, police say residents of the apartments are less concerned with crime than with kids who stand around on nearby sidewalks.

Police recently removed the benches at N Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Palmetto Street to cut down on loitering, Capt. Tony Holloway told the City Council. But if juveniles are just standing on the sidewalks, he said, they aren't committing a crime.

When resident Derrick McSwain first moved into his three-bedroom apartment there more than a year ago, "It was rough," he said.

Crime wasn't high in the apartment complex, but several late-night police chases ended up outside his front door. He watched neighbors move into an apartment, then move out a few months later. His family, too, considered moving out once their lease was up.

But once the management company hired security guards to watch over the apartments a few months ago, the late-night echoes of crime calmed down, he said. They decided to stay, because the neighbors are nice, and above all, the price is right.

"I think it's worth it," said McSwain, 23. "If you go anywhere else, it costs much more."

The cost of living

Renting a two-bedroom apartment at Palmetto Park costs $575 per month, and a three-bedroom apartment costs $705.

Those rates are "very low compared to the market," Kirschner said.

But some North Greenwood residents say the cost of renting an apartment at Palmetto Park prevents people from moving in.

Demetrius McCloud, 27, remembers living in the old Greenwood Apartments for several years as a teenager. Then, she said, it cost $275 to live in a two-bedroom apartment with one air conditioning unit.

"They're still the same," she said. "They just jacked up the price. It's too expensive for normal families around here."

City Manager Bill Horne said the old apartments needed major upgrades.

And even when it's affordable, he said, higher quality housing inevitably comes at a higher cost.

"Greenwood Apartments was a disgrace to any community," Horne said. "The quality of housing on that site and the conditions that people lived in was inexcusable."

Kirschner said about 11 percent of residents living in the apartments have Section 8 housing vouchers that allow them to pay reduced rent.

"We have been trying and trying to get more residents with Section 8 vouchers in, and it's just been very hard," she said.

They tried to contact residents relocating from the Jasmine Courts public housing complex, who were given Section 8 vouchers after the Clearwater Housing Authority decided to demolish their homes there and replace them with a mixed-income housing development.

"Their comments were they didn't want to come to Greenwood because they didn't feel safe," Kirschner said.

Tisha Cobb, 23, pays $189 per month for the two-bedroom apartment she lives in with her son. She decided to move into Palmetto Park two months ago after hearing about the improvements.

The apartments are "much better than the old ones," she said. "I'm going to stay here for a while."

A new face

Ollie Williams, 65, has lived in the apartments, old and new, for more than 50 years.She said she's happy to see the neighborhood looking a little bit brighter.

"They spent a lot of money on this place, fixing it up," she said. "I think they did a good job. I give them credit."

But some nearby residents worry that city officials want to revitalize the area only so they can force out the people who live there. They say some residents of the original Greenwood Apartments moved out and couldn't afford to move back in. And the new apartments already use background checks to weed people out.

"They've invested a lot of money," said Deborah Lane, who lives a few blocks from Palmetto Park. "They're going to come in here and try to buy these houses. . . . It's going to be like Clearwater Beach."

Officials say they're committed to helping improve the neighborhood, despite some resistance from nearby residents.

"This community means so much to a lot of people. If anyone wants it to succeed, we want to see it succeed," Kirschner said.

A neighborhood crime watch program will start in the apartments next month, she said.

Horne said the low occupancy levels are only a short-term problem.

"Sometimes when you build new buildings and you change the face of a neighborhood, it may take a while for everybody to get accustomed to the new environment," Horne said .

Residents may learn to love the apartments' new face, with fresh coats of paint in pastel yellows, blues and greens. But they still disagree on what impact the facelift will have on their neighborhood.

"What they have done so far is nice, but I don't think it's going to change the situation," Lane said.

And no residents interviewed for this story called the apartments by their new name.

"It's going to be Greenwood till the day I die," McSwain said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at 727 445-4170 or cshoichet@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 30, 2005, 00:09:11]


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