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HUD urges sale of 'troubled' Citrus Grove Apartments in St. Petersburg

The Citrus Grove Apartments in St. Petersburg have been the site of maintenance issues and a manhunt.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

The Citrus Grove Apartments in St. Petersburg have been the site of maintenance issues and a manhunt.

ST. PETERSBURG — The federal government has labeled the bleak, mustard-colored complex in the shadow of Tropicana Field and across from John Hopkins Middle School "troubled."

What about Citrus Grove Apartments alarmed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Battered and unworking appliances. Missing and damaged roof shingles. Mold, mildew, leaking pipes. Graffiti. Litter. Rampant mismanagement.

In the broader community, the seven-building complex at 731 15th St. S has drawn attention for high-profile crimes.

In February, it was the focal point of one of the city's most intense manhunts. Police later arrested 16-year-old resident Nicholas Lindsey, charging him with the murder of police Officer David S. Crawford.

The complex also was the hangout of three young men set to be tried in November in the 2009 drive-by slaying of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. Paris died in a volley of gunfire aimed at her home.

Such is the legacy of the affordable housing complex conceived by civil rights icon the late Rev. Enoch Davis and affiliated with one of St. Petersburg's prominent African-American congregations, Bethel Community Baptist Church.

Council member Karl Nurse jumped into action after Paris' killing was linked to the apartment complex. He put pressure on HUD.

"The good thing about my job is I can use it to create a stink,'' he said. "HUD had a big stick. All they had to do is pick it up."

The agency "strongly encouraged'' Bethel Community Heights, the nonprofit that owns the apartments, to sell Citrus Grove to "someone in the business of owning and managing real estate professionally,'' HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said in an e-mail.

The financially strapped Bethel Community Heights is up against a Feb. 1, 2012, deadline, the date a HUD loan for capital repairs — $1.35 million plus interest — is due.

The deadline, Nurse said, served as "an effective motivational tool'' to stir the lethargic Bethel Community Heights board, which put the property up for sale. Shanahan says there is a letter of intention to buy the property. A meeting between buyer and seller has been scheduled for today. "We hope to be able to come out of that with the details worked out and ready to go,'' said Nurse, who will attend along with HUD representatives.

There was little choice but to sell, said David McEachern, longtime board president until he stepped down about two years ago.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, blames the situation at Citrus Grove on a renegade board that until recently was controlled by nonchurch members.

McEachern, who left Sykes' church after a disagreement 10 years ago, responded that Bethel church members often failed to show up for meetings and that Sykes is simply angry because he couldn't get his way.

"We have come in to manage the outcome of the sale and assure that the proceeds are properly handled,'' said Sykes, who became involved with the Bethel Community Heights board only recently.

"Bethel (Community Baptist Church) needs to be cleared once and for all from any negative outcomes associated with Citrus Grove,'' he said. "We were not active and neither were we informed about its administrative processes, its board deliberations, in writing or otherwise. So please don't blame Bethel congregation for that mess."

Management of the complex has been an issue for years. Besides failing to keep the property in a livable condition, HUD accused the Bethel Community Heights board of "inadequate oversight with regard to financial management."

Problems were outlined in a May 2009 letter. The mortgage was in default. Payments had not been made on time for more than five years. Property inspections were unsatisfactory, and though the board "had been directed to obtain professional, independent management on numerous occasions since April 2005," it had failed to do so.

In that same May 22, 2009, letter, HUD said it had asked for information on April 8 and again on April 9 about the shooting of an 8-year-old by a Citrus Grove resident. The name of the victim was redacted from documents requested by the St. Petersburg Times, but Paris, the 8-year-old girl, was killed about that time.

A few months later, HUD wrote the board again, saying that "as part of a last ditch effort to save this property from failing," it was requesting a meeting with McEachern and all board members. HUD summoned the group to Tampa, adding, "The property manager is not invited."

"At HUD's insistence," Bethel Community Heights' board eventually hired Royal American Management, based in Panama City, Fla., to run the complex. The company, which took over on Jan. 1, 2010, has been praised for the work it has done, but it is up against what Nurse describes as "a 15-year backlog of maintenance."

For Shatoya Jenkins, though, a mother of five who has lived at Citrus Grove for four years, "It's gotten better.''

The 4.5-acre property is listed with Marcus & Millichap, a national firm whose website is marketing the complex as an "excellent acquisition rehab." Casey Babb, a senior associate, declined to give the asking price, but McEachern said the property is being sold for $3 million to $4 million.

There will be hurdles to overcome.

Any sale must be approved by HUD if the complex is to remain in the Section 8 program. That will not happen "unless the sale provides for significant funding for substantial rehabilitation" of Citrus Grove, HUD spokeswoman Shanahan said. Rehabilitation costs are expected to amount to a minimum of $1.5 million, she said.

"Ultimately, we need this property to be preserved as subsidized, affordable housing," said Lisa Brody, managing attorney for Bay Area Legal Services in St. Petersburg, which has helped Citrus Grove tenants fight for apartment repairs over the years.

Sykes wants to use any profits from the sale to establish affordable housing for seniors.

"Many of the (Citrus Grove) residents who are young with children are allowing their boyfriends and others to come in and stay, and usually they're not working and that is the context for a lot of the problems that exist there,'' he said.

Opened with good intentions in 1972, Citrus Grove originally was christened Bethel Community Heights, linking it to its founding congregation, which was then across the street. Under Sykes, the church moved out of the neighborhood to Lakewood.

Fifteen years after a $1.3 million makeover designed to erase its reputation as a "crack haven" and give it a fresh start, Citrus Grove is again at a crossroads.

"The fundamental goal is to get the facility renovated, and the way to get it renovated is to get it sold,'' Nurse said.

"It's not just about Citrus Grove, but that is the linchpin of the neighborhood around it. If we can get Citrus Grove renovated and stable and safe, we can turn around the surrounding neighborhood. John Hopkins will be a better school, and the children will be able to walk home safely."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

By the numbers

Citrus Grove Apartments

7 buildings

84, 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom units

99 adults

153 children

252 total residents

HUD urges sale of 'troubled' Citrus Grove Apartments in St. Petersburg 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 1:16pm]
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