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245 poor residents must move on

Debbie Johnson, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority, talks to an auditorium full of residents.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Debbie Johnson, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority, talks to an auditorium full of residents.

ST. PETERSBURG — Darrell Irions stood in front of a room of Graham-Rogall residents Tuesday and promised to help find every one of them a new home.

Half the crowd cheered the executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. Others sat sullen faced with their arms crossed.

But where the remaining 245 residents of the city's largest public housing complex will move and how that will affect affordable housing is unclear as the $12.3-million sale to condominium developer KEGB LLC moves forward.

Graham-Rogall, which has 486 units, sits near Tropicana Field at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Third Avenue S.

Irions said his staff is hosting weekly question and answer sessions with residents and will not finalize the sale until each resident has found a new home.

Residents will have access to counseling, referrals to area social service organizations, utility setup assistance and other services. They can move anywhere in the country and still qualify for federally assisted housing.

"Residents can take as long as they need," he said.

But Irions knows it is in the housing authority's best interest to move the residents quickly. Subsidies from the federal Housing and Urban Development department are waning. The agency will subsidize only 50 percent of the units in the Graham property this year, and none in 2009, Irions said.

That means the housing authority could end up paying as much as $1-million a year to operate the half-empty building.

Irions said his staff is trying to negotiate with the developer for an advance that could be used toward operating Graham. Should the sale fall through, the money would have to be repaid, Irions said.

Among residents, there are two camps: those eager to move and those who would prefer the complex be updated so they could stay.

Sevell Brown Jr., 76, hopes he can find an apartment where he can fish nearby.

"I love it here, but it is time to move on to someplace nicer," he said. "The building is old. There are a lot of problems with it."

But Curtis Bulmer. 49, doesn't want to move away from his friends.

"I would have been happy living here another 20 years until I dropped dead," he said. "We refuse to let them break us up."

Housing officials say it makes more sense to relocate residents and focus on new housing projects than to continue to throw money at the deteriorating Graham-Rogall.

The two-building complex has inadequate elevator service, an outdated electrical system, insufficiently insulated windows and inefficient air conditioning, according to the housing authority. Updating the complex, valued at $5-million, would cost $25-million, they say.

The housing authority began moving residents last year. About 95 of the Graham building's 336 units are occupied. All of the 150 units in Rogall are full.

Proceeds of the sale will go toward new housing. The housing authority is in discussions with county agencies and other city agencies to create mixed housing developments, including 50 new units for seniors, Irions said.

The authority is also considering modular home complexes that would potentially include low-income residents as well as homeowners earning as much as $100,000 a year. The housing authority is eyeing land in Pinellas Park and north St. Petersburg.

That is bad news for Rogall resident Jim Hull, who has lived at the complex for more than a decade. He doesn't want to make new friends or learn how to get around in a new city.

"I'm starting a new life at 70 years old," Hull said. "Maybe moving out of here is the best thing for a bunch of us, but we don't know, and you get the feeling that no one cares."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

245 poor residents must move on 05/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 11:59am]
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