TAMPA — Martha Mills sat on her front porch enjoying the late fall sun, a cat and a cactus for company. That spot was once her window on the world, where the 61-year-old could catch up on neighborhood gossip at North Boulevard Homes, a West Tampa public housing complex.
Now, every house within view is empty and boarded up.
"It's not lonely, but it's sad," she said. "Everybody gone."
As recently as 2015, the sprawling 44-acre community thrummed with the laughter, joy, angst and heartache of more than 2,000 residents who lived in the small military-barrack-style homes with no air-conditioning. It was a life of block parties and porch conversations, a place marred by crime, but blessed by community spirit.
Now, just a handful of families are left in the 820-unit complex. Stray cats have the run of its deserted streets. Playgrounds and basketball courts stand empty.
The World War II era complex is slated to make way for the Tampa Housing Authority's ambitious West River development project, which will combine affordable housing with market-rate apartments, offices and retail. Demolition is scheduled to begin early next year.
The relocation effort began 18 months ago. For the families still there, every day is a reminder of a community that is no more.
"We're the last of the Mohicans," said Justin Cox, a 25-year-old unemployed construction worker who, with the help of friends, packed his possessions into a pickup and moved close to University Mall on Monday. "This is mind-blowing; it's like a ghost town."
Cox's new apartment is Section 8 housing, the same choice made by roughly 70 percent of North Boulevard residents who have moved.
The remainder relocated to other public housing projects run by the Housing Authority.
Residents have the right to come back when the first new West River apartment blocks are finished. But many may not. After the demolition of other public housing projects such as Central Park Village and Ponce de Leon Courts, only about 12 percent of those residents chose to return, said Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority's chief operating officer.
"I think that is huge success," Moore said. "That means residents have found in their relocation choice a place where they're happy."
Federal grants paid for the moving costs and residents who choose Section 8 housing are counseled about the increased expectations they may face from their new landlords.
The Housing Authority also provides a minimum of five years of supportive services and case management for every resident.
"If they move with purpose, they can actually hopefully chart a better path for greater self sufficiency; that is what relocation is all about," Moore said.
Inevitably, however, change is difficult for some while others are critical of the way their moves have been handled.
Mills said she was told she will be moved to Robles Park, which after North Boulevard homes is the oldest housing complex in the city. It's a place that has bad memories for her after she was the victim of a 1998 carjacking.
"I have to go where they say I go," she said.
After five years at North Boulevard, Latonya Wilkins can't wait to move out with her two young children. She said she packed most of her stuff in June, but her move to the Oaks at Riverview stalled due to paperwork issues.
Since all her neighbors left, she hasn't felt safe. Worse, she said, her home is now plagued with mice, which she believes come from the empty homes next to her apartment on Main Street.
"This house is not livable," she said. "I don't feel like they care if I move or not."
Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida, conducted studies on the effects of relocation on low-income families in Tampa. She said they often end up more isolated with fewer transportation options and fewer nearby friends who can give them rides to the grocery store or the doctor.
They can face hostility in their new neighborhoods too, she said.
"You vilify public housing and say people who live there are dangerous criminals," she said. "It's not surprising people try to resist."
Housing Authority Board member Hazel Harvey moved into North Boulevard when she was still a child. Her father had died and there were few places in the private rental market for a black family with five children.
She is now planning to write a book documenting the almost 70-year history of the project, which was a starting place for local community leaders such as Judge George E. Edgecomb, after whom the downtown Tampa courthouse is named.
She said she has mixed feelings about the demolition of her former home, but hopes residents use the chance to better their lives.
"I want young people in public housing to realize what we did, that public housing should not be your final home," Harvey said. "You should get yourself educated, get yourself a trade and then move out."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.