By JULIANA A. TORRES
LARGO – Pinellas Heights, a new 153-unit complex built for low-income seniors, is nearing completion.
The Pinellas County Housing Authority is waiting for the final inspections to be completed to obtain the certificate of occupancy for the building, hopefully this week, said its executive director Debra Johnson. The complex was built at 11411 Ulmerton Road in Largo, next door to the headquarters of the nonprofit.
Providing housing that seniors can truly afford is something to be proud of, Johnson said. As the population in Pinellas County is aging, there is a growing need for stable housing for seniors on fixed incomes.
“Seniors have a special place in my heart,” Johnson said. “We hear stories all the time about senior citizens making choices between paying bills and buying medicine or food.”
The complex is 100 percent leased – 21 of the units to low-income seniors, earning below 60 percent of the county’s median income and 132 to very-low-income seniors, those earning below 50 percent of the median income. Residents will pay 30 percent of their income, whatever that is.
“There was not a residency requirement, but these residents are local,” Johnson said.
The residents haven’t seen inside the complex yet, but they’ve seen pictures at briefings to teach them about the leasing requirements prior to signing.
“They’re all so excited,” Johnson said. “You can just hear the excitement when they leave.”
Most of the apartments are one-bedroom units; only 16 have two bedrooms. All units are handicap accessible, offering walk-in showers and wider doorways. All four floors of the complex have laundry facilities. Plus, there’s a fitness center, a library and computer center, a crafts and activities room and a verandah stocked with rocking chairs overlooking a pond with a fountain.
The Pinellas County Housing Authority, or PCHA, owns the property for Pinellas Heights, formally the Green House Shops. The strip center had fallen into disrepair. Instead of spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in renovations, the nonprofit decided to do what it does best: provide housing for those in need, Johnson explained.
“That’s what we’re here for. When we can do that, we’re proud,” she said.
The housing authority had contracts for the project signed by the beginning of 2012. They broke ground on the project in November of that year.
Residents will start moving in shifts over the next few weeks, as soon as the certificate of occupancy is obtained.
Aside from those ready to move in, 50 people are on the waiting list for the new housing, said Stephanie Baker, president of Norstar Accolade Property Management, the company helping PCHA manage Pinellas Heights. However, she doesn’t expect much of a turnover.
“The apartments are so nicely laid out, I think they’ll stay. They’re just gorgeous,” Baker said.
PCHA has several other housing projects in the works. The Landing at Cross Bayou, for example, is a gut rehabilitation of an older, 184-unit apartment community in Lealman.
“It’s going to be something where Pinellas County can be very proud. This property is going to be good for the next 30 years,” Johnson said.
Also, a planning group is brainstorming ideas for the redevelopment of Rainbow Village, about 30 acres and 200 units of public housing, located west of Pinellas Heights on 134th Avenue in Largo.
Along with the construction projects themselves, the nonprofit offers a variety of programs, providing public housing as well as affordable housing options for veterans, seniors, disabled residents and those who need assisted living. In the last few years, the organization has offered a family self-sufficiency program, helping participants plan and achieve goals to educate themselves, earn more income, save money and eventually live free of welfare assistance. Another program allows families to use their Section 8 housing voucher toward a mortgage instead of rent.
Johnson has been executive director for the Pinellas County Housing Authority since July 2009. It’s a job she “wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” she said.
“This is just an opportunity to help more people, as well as help the county. The county itself – from south to north – needs more housing that people can truly afford,” she said.
The Pinellas Heights grand opening will be celebrated Friday, May 9, 10 a.m., on the property, 11411 Ulmerton Road.
For more information about the Pinellas County Housing Authority, call 489-0736 or visit www.pinellashousing.com.