ST. PETERSBURG — For some military veterans facing long-term disabilities, an affordable place to live could make the difference between financial stability and a life on the street.
In Pinellas County, where a disproportionate number of veterans and their families wind up without a permanent home, a new affordable rental community may offer lasting help for those struggling to make ends meet.
Construction kicked off this week on the 88-unit Duval Park apartment complex in Lealman, a 10-acre development going up near the corner of 54th Avenue North and 45th Street, bordering the sprawling Joe’s Creek Greenway Park.
The project is being led by two nonprofit groups and a private developer using state tax credits to build one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, many reserved for individuals and families with incomes near or below the poverty line.
While new, upscale rentals are blossoming across the Tampa Bay region, quality, lower-priced housing remains a huge unmet need for many local families.
Affordable housing advocates hope the Duval Park apartments will be only one of many projects across Florida over the next several years as state funding has recently been restored following several lean budget cycles.
“There is an ongoing need for affordable units that can provide rent that’s not exceeding the person’s income. In some cases, people pay more than 50 percent of their income just for rent,” said Jack Humburg, housing director for St. Petersburg-based mental health group Boley Centers.
Boley joined veterans disability group ServiceSource and Tampa developer Blue Sky Communities to build Duval Park, which is expected to cost around $18 million.
Before the economic downturn, the property was slated to become an upscale gated community, but with the help of credits from the state-run Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which helps develop low-income housing, the land will now be used to serve families that are struggling to afford a quality, permanent place to live, Humburg said.
The apartments will be built around a club house and pool, and about half the units will be fully wheelchair accessible to serve wounded combat veterans.
A large portion of affordable rentals in the Tampa Bay region tend to be older properties that aren’t designed to accommodate people with physical disabilities, Humburg says.
There will also be on-site case managers from Boley and transportation services to help residents get to the nearby C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center and other health care providers.
Many of the units will be set aside for people making wages far below the area’s median income, with a quarter of them restricted to those with extremely low incomes who could be in danger of winding up without a home if they lost their job or faced another crisis.
While many cities in the Tampa Bay region are flush with residential development, much of the new rental housing is far too expensive for people earning minimum wage or dealing with long-term disabilities, Humburg said.
“When rents are $1,200 a month or more, it’s very difficult for someone on a fixed, low income to find a place to live that gives them the quality of life they deserve, particularly a veteran,” he said.
Statewide, about 45 percent of all households in Florida are struggling to afford basic life necessities, according to a report released this week by United Way of Florida based on data collected in 2012.
An alarming number of people working in low-wage service jobs spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, making them extremely vulnerable to financial troubles, says Jaimie Ross, president of the nonprofit Housing Coalition.
“If a family is making $25,000 and they’re spending half or more than half of that just on their housing, you can see they don’t have enough left over to meet the basic costs of living,” said coalition president Jaimie Ross.
For developers like Blue Sky Communities, the private company building Duval Park, steadily increasing construction costs combined with heavier government regulation has made building large affordable housing projects harder from a financial standpoint.
The construction cost per unit has doubled in the past two decades, company president Shawn Wilson said.
“We find the tax credits don’t go as far. Whereas we used to be able to build communities with 150, 200, 300 units or more, now almost everything is under 100 units,” he said.
“It becomes very inefficient, which exacerbates the cost issue.”
What’s encouraging to affordable housing advocates is the Florida Legislature in 2014 finally restored $100 million to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program after diverting the money into the general fund during several lean years following the recession.
The SHIP program could see that funding more than double in the next session, which would spur significant affordable housing development across Florida, Ross said.
Creating new modestly-priced homes and rental apartments is critical to curbing the rate of homeless individuals and families.
In the Tampa Bay area, a disproportionate number of those forced to live temporarily with friends, in cars or even on the streets are veterans returning from service overseas who end up here to take advantage of local veterans hospitals and other services, homeless advocates say.
In a 2013 count, 13 percent of Pinellas County’s 3,913 homeless individuals identified as veterans, a larger percentage than the state and national rate of veterans among the homeless population.
While that’s only a small portion of the total number of military veterans living in the local area, there’s a push across the Tampa Bay area to offer more than short-term emergency help to those who are struggling to get by with modestly-priced long-term housing.
“This is going to provide permanent housing for folks who otherwise might be at risk for homelessness,” said Wilson, the Duval Park developer.