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Housing Authority leaves neediest in cold

A Times Editorial
Published February 20, 2008


Almost three years after the Clearwater Housing Authority announced it was closing Homer Villas, a 61-unit rental apartment complex for people who could not afford market rents, we know what will happen to the land.

Habitat for Humanity plans to buy the property, situated at Betty Lane and Sunset Point Road in North Clearwater, tear down the long-vacant apartments, and build a neighborhood of at least 50 single-family homes called Stevens Creek.

The homes will be offered for sale to working folks who meet certain income guidelines and whom Habitat considers good candidates for responsible home ownership. The homes will be built with the help of the expected owners and volunteers, just as other Habitat projects are built.

Under the terms of Habitat's purchase of the property, former residents of Homer Villas and other Clearwater Housing Authority clients will be offered first opportunity to buy into the Stevens Creek community.

Former Homer Villas residents were dumped into the rental apartment market when the complex closed. Though they were provided vouchers that qualified them for subsidized rents in other places, the lack of affordable housing in Pinellas had reached a crisis, and it is not known how many residents actually found suitable housing. Adding to the difficulty was the Housing Authority's decision to also close and tear down 284-unit Jasmine Courts, formerly known as Condon Gardens, on Drew Street, leaving hundreds of residents there without a home. That property remains vacant.

While it is good news that Habitat for Humanity, an outstanding organization, plans to buy the Homer Villas property and that the new community will provide desperately needed work force housing, for-purchase homes are not a replacement for Homer Villas.

There will be fewer units at Stevens Creek - about 50, instead of the more than 60 at Homer Villas - so the total inventory of affordable housing units goes down.

And Stevens Creek will serve a different demographic than Homer Villas did: potential homeowners. The result is that the rental housing inventory takes a hit, and people who do not qualify for home ownership continue to struggle to find affordable places to live.

The situation is likely to grow more dire. Some of the current subsidized rental complexes were built by private developers through special federal funding arrangements under the condition that they remain low-cost rentals for a specified number of years. Those agreements are beginning to expire, which means that some longtime rental complexes could convert to condominiums.

Also, housing authorities are not building much rental housing these days - a situation Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard addressed bluntly at Monday's City Council work session.

Hibbard said the Clearwater Housing Authority, which is not an arm of city government but is run by a city-appointed board and receives some city money, seems to be tearing down more housing than it is building, and he wonders why. Hibbard asked for a report on the authority's financial status and plans.

"I'm not real happy with them," he said. "It's disturbing. They moved people out of Homer Villas without having something ready for them to move into."

It was the same at Jasmine Courts, he said.

Housing authorities receive most of their funding through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in the past decade, much of that funding stream from Washington has dried up. Housing authorities throughout the country have been forced to try new approaches to raising revenue, such as building market-price housing to sell. Or they have reduced the number of clients they serve, even as the ranks of low-income people needing housing have grown.

Habitat for Humanity, along with other similar housing organizations, has tried to step into the gap. No doubt, the Stevens Creek community will be an outstanding Habitat product, providing new, attractive and affordable housing for people who can qualify to purchase a home there.

But neither those private housing organizations nor government can afford to ignore the need for more affordable rental housing. For low-income people who need rental housing and can't find it, the only alternative often is the streets.