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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

St. Pete gives initial OK for low-cost housing for vets


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ST. PETERSBURG — A 97-unit apartment complex that will offer low-cost housing for military veterans got initial approval from the city this week, one of only a few affordable housing projects to gain traction in recent years.

The four-story building is planned for a 4.6-acre lot on 13th Avenue North in the North Kenwood neighborhood, one block west of the Booker Creek Apartments.

In addition to providing inexpensive subsidized rentals for the city’s large population of veterans, some of whom struggle to find stable housing, the 38,000-square-foot building would have community space where residents could meet with career counselors and access other services.

Darrell Irions, chief executive of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, has been working for nearly a decade to develop housing specifically for veterans, but this project only came together in the past several months as nonprofit groups, government agencies and developers hashed out a plan.

The complex got site-plan approval from the city’s Development Review Commission on Wednesday, enjoying a rarely used density bonus that allows developers to add an extra 28 units.

“In some of these properties where it’s not a large number of units, the cost to operate, even to build it, stretches the budget so far that they have a hard time seeing the profit they want to see,” Irions said.

Federal agencies provide tax credits and incentives for affordable housing, particularly for veterans, but the low rents — even after government subsidies — can make profit margins slim for developers, Irions said.

A handful of the 97 units will rent at market rates, but the majority will be reserved for people of low income, with preference given to veterans, especially those who have been wounded in combat. With government assistance, veterans could pay as little as $75 a month.

The project will cost an estimated $21 million, with the housing authority contributing $4 million. The housing authority and developer America First Real Estate Group are seeking a variety of tax credits, zero-interest loans and other government assistance to lower expenses.

If all goes according to plan, construction could begin next year and the project could be finished by 2015, said Tom McLeay of America First.

McLeay’s investment firm, based in Omaha, Neb., has developed veterans housing across the country.

“We’re trying to create a real communal type of living,” McLeay said. “We’ve found across the country that veterans like to live together.”

Veterans who have gone through drug rehabilitation can find a temporary place to stay in Pinellas County, but there are many obstacles, aside from costs, to finding a long-term home, said Richard Wasilik of Veterans of South Pinellas.

Some landlords will turn them down if they’ve lived on the streets or been involved with drugs.

Other affordable homes or apartments may not be equipped for veterans who require wheelchairs or struggle with other disabilities, he said.

“The need is tremendous all over the country, but I know in Pinellas County a lot of our veterans, especially the disabled ones, need somewhere they can go on a permanent basis,” said Wasilik, a Vietnam veteran who helps others find places to live.

New affordable housing in general has had limited growth despite a boom in market-rate rental construction in St. Petersburg and across the Tampa Bay area.

This will be only the fourth housing project approved for the workforce housing density bonus established by the city in 2008 to allow developers to build extra units if a certain portion of them are rented at affordable rates.

“This is a tough project to make work financially,” Irions told the Development Review Commission.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

Twitter: @JBoatwrightTBO

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