Affordable housing in Pinellas not an oxymoron, builders say

Published May 7, 2007

Brenda Postell knew she wanted to own a home, but with a foreclosure in her past, she didn't know where to turn until she drove by a Gateway Housing Group's model two years ago.

"I didn't know which direction to go, so I stopped in and talked to them, " said the 55-year-old single mother.

Postell and her son now live in a three-bedroom home on Dartmouth Avenue, and her mortgage payment is about what she paid in rent these past 10 years. She said she wouldn't have known how to close the deal but for Gateway's help.

Gateway is one of a number of builders that focus on workforce housing and infill building around the county. By helping clients secure down payments and financing assistance, builders are chipping away at the need for affordable housing.

"There's a perception that affordable housing is not available, " said Terrill Brown, sales director for Gateway, which just added a model home at 1787 38th Ave. N. "The challenge is fighting through those perceptions."

Brown said Gateway has built nearly 90 homes in the three years of its existence, all aimed at the teachers, nurses and other workers who struggle in a rising property market. Postell, for example, got into her 1, 400-square-foot home for $162, 000. Not cheap, she said, but manageable.

"I'm very happy, " Postell said. "It's great saving money."

Other builders have been in the business even longer and tell similar stories. They also fight the perception that building affordably is impossible.

"Everyone thinks there's no land in Pinellas County, " said Jerome Hendrickson with General Home Development, which has models at 201 49th St. S. "But there's 3, 000 lots here, all buildable and ready to go."

Hendrickson's signs dot neighborhoods from Gulfport, where he lives, to Largo and beyond. He said the 1, 500 homes the company has built in the county since 1971 have come from a growing market but also a willingness to get into the details with buyers who lack liquid assets.

"It takes a lot to work with the government programs" for down payment assistance, he said, adding that his company also does mortgage and title work itself. "The programs are really tough to understand, so it's a constant learning process."

The affordable market has proved more resilient of late as the larger real estate market has faltered, said Stuart Cohen of American Housing Corp. He said the margins are smaller in affordables, but it's an entry point that can help builders later.

"People are buying 1, 300 square feet, though they want 2, 000, but you have to start somewhere, " he said. "The market has slowed down, but it hasn't affected us because we do so much infill."

Cohen said he builds all over, including out-of-the-way places like Lealman or rising areas like Pinellas Park. Brown of Gateway said his company has also done a lot of work in southern St. Petersburg, which has an ample supply of buildable land.

Such redevelopment helps rebuild the fabric of the community, he said, as it did in Roser Park, now popular but a problem area when Brown grew up there.

General Home's Hendrickson said the next big opportunity is in land trusts. The county is working on developing such a trust that would allow people to own a home, but the trust to own the land so its appreciation won't affect prices. Such trusts usually aim at large tracts but can work for infill as well.

"That's the next big answer, " Hendrickson said.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Building lean

General Home Development


352 567-6581

Gateway Housing Group


(727) 896-0120

American Housing Corp.


(727) 546-6611