CLEARWATER — For nearly a quarter century, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County has been building one house at a time. Volunteers with hammers and drills converge on a single lot and build an affordable home for a needy family.
Now Habitat is thinking bigger. In Clearwater and Dunedin, it's going to start building neighborhoods.
The charity's upcoming project in Clearwater, which won approval from a city zoning board last week, will be a 51-house subdivision off N Betty Lane just south of Sunset Point Road. In Dunedin, it intends to build 19 townhomes on Howell Street near Martin Luther King Avenue.
The Pinellas charity is following a nationwide trend of Habitat volunteers building whole communities instead of single homes.
"It is a lot more common now," said Barbara Inman, executive director of Pinellas Habitat. "We used to build a house here and there, but we started doing these bigger projects to really make an impact and not just a dent in the need for affordable housing."
There's another reason, too.
"A lot of volunteers want to work on a Saturday and we just can't accommodate them all. If we have a community we're building, we can put more people to work."
Construction should start this fall on the Dunedin townhome community, which will be called Shady Grove. Work on the Clearwater subdivision, called Stevens Creek, should begin next year and continue for several years.
The new Clearwater neighborhood takes the place of an old public housing complex called Homer Villas that was torn down last year. The Clearwater Housing Authority, which owned the 61-unit complex, got rid of it because it didn't support itself financially. Tenants' rent payments weren't enough to pay for maintenance, the buildings were too old to be retrofitted, and crime was a problem. The authority sold the 9-acre parcel to Habitat for $1.2 million.
The new Habitat homes will be sold to people who make between 30 and 80 percent of the area's median income, said Ron Spoor, Habitat's land development manager.
"We want an esthetically beautiful community that blends in very well and is a proud place to live for each person that's living there," Spoor told Clearwater's Community Development Board.
The board approved the project with no controversy.
"I think it's a great project. It's one that's needed in our city," said board member Frank Dame.
For a family of four, 80 percent of the area's median income is no more than $47,350, Inman said. However, the Habitat homeowners also must earn enough to make their monthly mortgage payments, which are typically $700 or lower, including escrow for insurance and taxes.
Besides the financial requirements to get a no-interest mortgage from Habitat, people must put in a minimum of 250 hours of "sweat equity" by helping to build their homes.
"Most people who apply for our housing are renting something," Inman said. "A lot of times, they can buy a Habitat house for what they're paying in rent."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.