Federal program to help renovate Tampa apartments
TAMPA - The two-story apartment building sits at the south end of Bayshore Boulevard within sight of the gate to MacDill Air Force Base. Through the black metal fence and past a waterfront home just across Bayshore, residents of the Merasol apartments can see a silver sliver of Hillsborough Bay and TECO's Apollo Beach power plant steaming in the distance. Marti Perez moved into one of the Merasol's 25 apartments two years ago. She works part-time at the MacDill commissary. Like her neighbors, she's getting by on a modest income in an apartment that each year falls further behind modern living standards."I'm sure there's probably things older than me in here," said Perez, 46. In June, Perez and her dozen neighbors will be relocated to a nearby extended-stay hotel so their new landlord, an affordable-housing nonprofit called Mental Health Care Inc., can gut and remodel the building. The project will provide affordable housing, not transitional housing for mental health patients or others, said Mental Health Care spokeswoman Susan Morgan. The Merasol renovation is part of a multibillion-dollar federal program created to pick up the pieces left by the national housing collapse. Through the government's Neighborhood Stabilization Program, Tampa area cities and counties have teamed with affordable housing advocates to renovate and find new owners for hundreds of foreclosed or abandoned houses and apartments. Morgan's group bought the 40-year-old Merasol two weeks ago in a foreclosure sale. The building will get a total upgrade, from a new roof to new windows to electrical outlets in the bathrooms, said Bowen Arnold, managing member of Tampa's DDA Development, which is doing the renovation. The pool, long ago filled in with dirt, will be replaced with a brick-paved courtyard and a small dog park. "The idea with this program is to reset the property so it's ready for the next 30 years," Arnold said during a recent tour of the building. The tenants are a mix of ages, but all of them work and most will be returning in November when the project is finished, Arnold said. In some cases, they'll be coming back to lower rent, depending on their income, and a better quality of life. "They'll have a bathroom with a plug," Morgan said. "We take that for granted." The city of Tampa is underwriting the renovation using its latest round of Neighborhood Stabilization funding. When the program began in 2008, counties and cities in the Tampa area received a combined $70 million. Since then, the region has qualified for millions more in subsequent extensions of the program. The third wave, which was part of last year's federal banking reform law, has pumped another $26.3 million into local government coffers to staunch the damage of the housing collapse. The $2.3 million Merasol project is the first to qualify for Tampa's $4.7 million in new stabilization funds. The city is looking for takers for the remaining funds. Hillsborough County is in a similar situation, having spent about $500,000 of its $8 million. It's reviewing projects to fund with the rest, said Lannette Glass, who runs the county's program. After pouring its previous stabilization funds into parts of East Tampa and West Tampa, the city chose to direct the new money to projects south of Gandy Boulevard, said Thom Snelling, the city's growth management director. The city has moved away from the demolitions and land banking it did in Sulphur Springs under former Mayor Pam Iorio. Instead, it is focusing on redeveloping multifamily projects such as the Merasol, which can provide rental income to the city's affordable housing program. "We have to be sure that that home is always going to an income-eligible family or individual," Snelling said. The federally funded rehabilitation projects cater to tenants or homebuyers (in the case of single-family homes) whose income falls under 120 percent of the regional median income. That's means less than $67,800 for a family of four, according to figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the Merasol, Arnold and Morgan say they plan to turn the well-worn apartment building into a place neighbors will embrace. "We want to create affordable housing that doesn't look like affordable housing," Morgan said. "We're hoping to be an asset to the community." For her part, Perez looks forward to returning with her neighbors to the community they've built. "It's very peaceful here," she said. "Everybody respects each other's space."
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