CLEARWATER — Pinellas social service agencies have long decried the lack of affordable housing, especially for families.
Yet five months after opening Fairway Gardens, the Dunedin Housing Authority can't seem to find tenants for the complex's four available affordable housing apartments.
Officials have perched vacancy signs on the front lawn of the complex, which is in Clearwater. They've passed out fliers and posted ads on Craigslist and other websites. Newspaper ads and notices on the city of Dunedin's site direct folks to Fairway Gardens' website, where prospective tenants can get a feel for the roomy, newly renovated one- and two-bedroom units.
The apartments, located at 30 and 110 N Lady Mary Drive in Clearwater within a 20-unit complex of mixed public housing and affordable housing, rent for $675 a month. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists fair market rent for two-bedroom apartments in this area at $926 a month.
So what gives?
"We actually believe the difficulty in renting these apartments is due to the tough economy and points to the greater need for housing assistance," said Dunedin Housing Authority spokeswoman Audra Butler. "Even though these recently upgraded apartments are being offered at rents substantially below market rate, people still are having trouble finding the money to rent them."
Clearwater Housing Authority CEO Jacqueline Rivera said a lack of jobs and even underemployment are big problems.
Public housing, which is for those with the lowest incomes, can only accommodate so many people, Rivera said. For example, Fairway Gardens' 15 public housing units — where tenants contribute 30 percent of their income for rent and the authority subsidizes the remainder — are full.
"You can have affordable rents but … you can't fill units unless people have a source of income," Rivera said. "We're struggling with that in Clearwater in particular."
The Clearwater Housing Authority owns 731 units dispersed among three affordable housing complexes, two public housing communities and two subsidized-rent homes.
The 529 units designated as affordable housing are about 90 percent occupied, Rivera said. But within that group, the units for seniors are struggling to stay 89 percent full, which officials attribute to the difficulty that fixed-income seniors are having selling their homes before they move into the apartments.
Rivera said the Clearwater Housing Authority expects to close in December on its $4.4 million sale of 40 acres on Drew Street, west of McMullen-Booth Road, to BayCare Health Systems. BayCare, the region's largest health care group, plans to open its corporate headquarters there in late 2013.
The acreage was previously occupied by the authority's Condon Gardens and Jasmine Courts public housing projects. Before the economy turned sour and public housing funding began to dry up, the housing authority had planned to build a subdivision of mixed-price homes on the land.
"So we may not have been able to put housing (there), but we're bringing in an employer," Rivera said.
The people who work for BayCare "will buy services. Those people will live in the area.," Rivera said. "I'm hoping that gives the economic uplift this area really needs."
In a bid to attract tenants, the Dunedin Housing Authority this month will try a new approach: a series of three open houses set for Wednesday, Nov. 16 and Nov. 19.
The events are the brainchild of 28-year-old Stephanie Johnson, a Fairway Gardens resident, St. Petersburg College banking student and aspiring lawyer who will join the authority's board this month.
Johnson had been on a wait list for public housing for a year and a half. She lived with her mom because she couldn't afford housing on her own.
"It was frustrating. For years, I was looking," said Johnson, who submitted the lucky 13th application for Fairway Gardens public housing.
In June, the self-proclaimed "movie buff" and her two dogs moved into a one-bedroom unit, which she has since adorned with brown leather furniture, a chandelier ceiling lamp and posters of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.
She loves the sturdy concrete walls, low pet deposit ($100 for up to two animals), and that each unit is laid out and decorated a little differently. She said the neighbors are friendly and quick to help each other.
Johnson and authority officials say the open house will allow prospective tenants to ask questions and see firsthand that the current tenants, neighborhood and apartments don't carry the negative stigma typically associated with low-income housing.
"I'm very grateful for the Dunedin Housing Authority because if it wasn't for them, a lot of people would be in bad situations," Johnson said. "I hope the word gets out there."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.