Too many Pinellas County residents are losing their homes due to unemployment and foreclosure. The percentage of families falling into homelessness is increasing due to the shortage of affordable housing for low-income families. There is hope for forty-eight (48) families living in a distressed and failing apartment complex in Clearwater, Florida. These very-low income residents will be able to remain in their homes due to a combined effort of the resident families, HUD, the Pinellas County Housing Authority (PCHA), the Pinellas County Housing Finance Agency (HFA), Gulfcoast Legal Services and Carlton Fields, P.A.
Norton Apartments, an aging forty-eight (48) unit HUD-subsidized multifamily community has been purchased out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the Pinellas County Housing Authority. The purchase was made possible by the use of federal Neighborhood Stabilization funds provided by the Pinellas County HFA. The aging Norton property, constructed in 1982 for the purpose of providing affordable housing to very low income families, had fallen into disrepair and had recently failed three consecutive HUD inspections. HUD was in the process of moving to abate the rent subsidy and terminate the project-based housing assistance contract due to the condition and management of the property.
HUD’s Regional Administrator for the Atlanta Region Edward L. Jennings, Jr. said, “We are excited about this new partnership for the preservation of affordable housing units in the great State of Florida. This investment in “Norton Homes” will ensure that Pinellas County residents will have access to safe, secure affordable housing for decades to come. The project will also create good paying construction jobs to help stimulate the Bay area’s economy.”
As the new owner, PCHA has plans underway to completely renovate the apartment community. Renovation plans include: replacement of windows, doors, hot water heaters, HVACs, and appliances with energy efficiency ratings. Structural repairs, electrical upgrades, and other internal and external improvements are also planned. Pinellas County will provide funding for energy efficiency improvements for the property through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.
“We are extremely excited about preserving this important resource for the county’s residents and we’re truly grateful to our partners who diligently worked to make this important preservation opportunity possible. The cross-collaboration of partnerships would make a tremendous case study for affordable housing preservation. The end result will be quality, affordable housing for individuals and families at or below 50% of the area median income for years to come,” said Debbie Johnson, PCHA’s Executive Director.
The Preservation: How it Unfolded
As their apartments were falling deeper and deeper into substandard condition and the property’s management was lax at best, several residents of Norton contacted Gulfcoast Legal Services to determine whether their homes could be saved. Gulfcoast Legal Services is is a non-profit corporation providing free legal assistance to income eligible residents of the greater Tampa Bay area.
“I fell in love with this community and its families the first time I visited the property,” Christine Allamanno, Affordable Housing Staff Attorney at Gulfcoast Legal Services, said. “It is not a stereotypical high rise housing ‘project’. The families live in one to four bedroom garden apartments. Because the community is small, the residents all know each other by name and look out for each other. The population is diverse, with large multigenerational families living in the four bedroom units, all the way down to single adults living in the one bedroom units. The residents are all ages; some are senior citizens living on social security, some are working poor, some are disabled, many are children. Breaking up this community would have left the residents vulnerable to homelessness.”
Allamanno added, “The property is next door to a state of the art rec center and water park for the kids. The Tampa Bay Rays recently refurbished the baseball diamonds at the neighboring rec center. The community is surrounded by trees and green space with a lovely lake on the other side of the center. We didn’t want the families, particularly the children, to lose access to these amenities due to the closing of the complex.
Allamanno began searching for a bankruptcy attorney to represent the Norton residents in the owner’s Chapter 11. She was referred to John Lamoureux, a principal and Chapter 11 bankruptcy expert at Carlton Fields in Tampa. Carlton visited the property, met several of the residents, and agreed that it should remain in the county’s affordable housing inventory.
Lamoureux agreed to represent the residents pro bono. Allamanno then began searching for an owner with the capacity and desire to purchase and renovate the community to bring it back up to HUD standards for subsidized housing. The search for a purchaser ultimately led to the Pinellas County Housing Authority (PCHA).
PCHA assists over 4,500 very low to moderate income individuals and families in Pinellas County. The agency is the largest public housing authority in Pinellas County. It owns and operates public housing, affordable housing, and administers the Housing Choice Voucher program for approximately 3,000 Pinellas County residents. The Pinellas County HFA, which had received neighborhood stabilization program funds to rescue distressed housing, stepped up to provide financing for the acquisition.