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Long-delayed affordable townhome project getting under way in Dunedin

DUNEDIN — An affordable housing project aimed at promoting home ownership is finally back on track, five years after the sagging economy brought planning for the project to a halt.

Pending the approval of permits, developers hope to break ground on the 25 environmentally friendly townhomes in July.

The mixed-income development, dubbed the Lorraine Leland project, will be built on the northeast and southeast corners of Douglas Avenue and Lorraine Leland Street, on 2.95 acres formerly occupied by Highlander Village, a Dunedin Housing Authority public housing complex that closed in 2002.

The housing authority, city of Dunedin and Pinellas County's Housing Finance Authority partnered on the project in 2007, expecting to break ground the following year.

Unfortunately, officials say, that was right around the same time that the economy soured and home mortgage lending dried up.

"There was no financing for potential buyers, and without buyers, it doesn't make sense to build it and just let it sit," said Sam Moore, director of projects for Planet Green Group, the Largo development firm that will build and sell the units.

Now, the market appears to be improving, officials say. That, coupled with a possible change in the way the land is designated, should make it easier for buyers to secure financing.

"We have not done an affordable housing project with this kind of system before, so we're excited about this being the first," said Frank Bowman, housing development manager of Pinellas County's Department of Community Development.

Planners hope the project, intended for low- to moderate-income buyers, will breathe new life into the traditionally low-income neighborhood south of Dunedin's Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, and spur other development throughout the area.

The townhomes, ranging from 1,100 to 1,300 square feet, will not be public housing, and no government subsidy will be available. Rather, buyers will own the $120,000 to $160,000 units, leaving them responsible for mortgage payments and maintenance. Target purchasers include local hospital employees, teachers, government employees or service workers who don't earn enough to afford market prices for homes in Pinellas County.

A distinctive feature, planners said, is that the homes will be green-certified, setting them apart from others currently on the market. Planet Green Group's design will combine solar panels and other low-cost technology to produce Net Zero efficiency, meaning little to no electric bills for tenants.

"They're new, they're unique, and folks who are going to be interested in buying these are the growing number of folks who are aware of green building features and the energy efficiency of those properties," Bowman said, adding that the project fits in nicely with Habitat for Humanity's Shady Grove townhomes, another green affordable housing development under construction nearby on land also formerly occupied by Highlander Village.

"So we think now is the time to move forward with the project," said Bowman, "and generate what we hope will be 25 very, very happy homeowners."

And just in case the economy hasn't stabilized by the time Planet Green units are ready to sell, the county says it will work with the company to remove a financing roadblock created when the housing authority donated the land to Pinellas County's community land trust.

The land trust arrangement keeps prices low for buyers, Bowman said, because the price of the land under the units isn't included in the purchase price. Buyers own the units and can sell them if they want, but the land beneath them remains in the trust, ensuring that it continues to be used for affordable housing in the future.

However, banks in recent years have "inexplicably" hesitated to lend money for homes included in land trusts even though, according to Bowman, the homeowners typically have lower foreclosure default rates.

"We just can't hold up this project anymore," Bowman said. "To move this project forward, we're willing to pull it out of the land trust if mortgages are not available."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Long-delayed affordable townhome project getting under way in Dunedin 04/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 13, 2012 8:03pm]
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