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Affordable housing slipping away

Pasco County's still better than Tampa or St. Petersburg, but it's not cheap: "Those days are over." Some say working folks will be priced out.

Published March 26, 2006

ODESSA - Here's what qualifies as affordable housing in Pasco County these days: a new 1,008-square-foot, one-bedroom, 11/2 bath condominium.

The price: $151,990 to $178,990.

Elaine and John Novak, Tampa baby boomers only a few years from full-time retirement, looked at comparable condos in Tampa's Westshore neighborhood that were selling for $250,000.

Then, like a lot of Tampa Bay area residents, they headed north in search of a better deal.

The Novaks settled on Tuscano at Suncoast Crossings, a new 344-unit condo complex at State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway. Their $175,000 one-bedroom "Lucca" unit has a view of the lake.

"This is the smallest home we've ever lived in - and the most expensive," said Elaine Novak, shortly after moving in Wednesday. "Pasco's prices are a little lower than Tampa, which is outrageous. This is a little bit country, but it's close to everything."

In terms of home prices and taxes, Pasco is still cheaper than Tampa and St. Petersburg. But county officials say the rising cost of housing - big mortgages, hefty tax bills and soaring insurance costs - is pushing home ownership out of reach for many.

"I don't think we'll go back to five years ago when Pasco was a cheap place to live," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development manager. "Those days are over."

Pasco County property appraiser Mike Wells said complexes such as Tuscano are still within striking distance of working folks. But not for long.

"In the next decade, the working people in this county are not going to be able to afford a home," Wells said.

That means longer commutes for some.

"Really, the answer today is people just have to go out and look further from the urban core," said Dewey Mitchell, president of Prudential Tropical Realty in Trinity. "And what does that create? Sprawl. We still have a tremendous quality of life here so housing prices aren't going to cool off."

A county program offers a no-interest down payment loan to qualified applicants. For example, a family of four with an annual income of about $62,000 qualifies for a $21,000 to $25,000 down payment loan. A very low income family of four, with an annual income of $26,100, can get $27,000 to $40,000 in assistance.

No matter what their income level, recipients must cap their home purchase price at $180,000. Pasco's median home price is about $215,000, about 10 percent below the national average of $238,100.

Pasco homes in the affordable range tend to be small, older homes in Holiday and Hudson or new developments such as Tuscano in central Pasco and Silver Oaks Village in Zephyrhills.

Silver Oaks recently closed on its last $120,000 cottage, a cozy two-bedroom, two-bath home inspired by Disney's neotraditional Celebration development. The company is considering a price increase for the next batch of cottages but has not come up with a fixed price.

"We have a waiting list for the cottages to be built in phase three," said Lydia Leslie, new homes sales manager at Silver Oaks. "If I had a hundred of these, I could have sold them already."

The demand is there, but money is in short supply.

"We have housing prices increasing at a greater pace than salaries," Romagnoli said. "We just put money out, and it was gone in a day. We can't keep up with the demand. Very low income people can't afford to get into a home."

Romagnoli said state lawmakers have been raiding affordable housing funds in recent years. He said Pasco really needs about $12-million to meet the financial needs of Pasco's workers. The program's current budget is $2.5-million.

Tuscano, where the Novaks bought, is a condominium complex at the vanguard of hectic development at State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway. Units start at about $151,000 for 953 square feet to $242,990 for a 1,490-square-foot loft.

It is located at the entrance to Ivy Lakes Estates, where single family homes are on the market for $359,000 to $620,000.

Lee Kampsen, president of the Tuscano development, said her buyers run the gamut from people on the verge of retirement like the Novaks to young couples trying to buy into a good school district.

"They want to be in a high-end neighborhood, but they can't afford a high-end neighborhood," Kampsen said. "This is what they can afford. There's nothing else like this around here for 10 miles."

Wells said rising home costs also are changing the retiree demographics in Pasco. Financially independent baby boomers, the largest, wealthiest generation in history, are replacing the World War II generation who flocked to Florida to take advantage of a lower cost of living.

"Unfortunately, for the retiree with limited resources, Florida is going to be less attractive," Wells said. Baby boomers "are going to come to Florida. And they will pay the price. That is going to continue escalating the real estate market for years to come."

[Last modified March 26, 2006, 00:26:15]

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