Wednesday, July 18, 2018
News Roundup

Rats and other woes infest St. Petersburg public housing complex (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG — Evidence of Charles and Frances Cohens' war on the rats plaguing their tiny Jordan Park home is everywhere.

Sticky traps are strategically positioned behind the stove and refrigerator and near the cupboards that store their food.

Charles Cohens, 73, tried to explain their plight: "She was cooking and one came...."

"... out of the burner and looked at me," said wife Frances Cohens, 72, finishing his sentence.

"I turned the stove off and walked away and said, 'That's it.' And I haven't cooked since then."

Day and night, the retirees say, they're tormented by the squeaking and scratching and sightings of rats in their one-bedroom, federally subsidized home near historic 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S.

The problems besetting the residents of Jordan Park are not taking place in a decades-old public housing project. Instead, they are happening in a community rebuilt just 15 years ago with high hopes.

It cost more than $27 million in public money to build. Now the St. Petersburg Housing Authority wants to spend $500,000 to buy it back.

Fixing the problems will likely cost much more.

• • •

Life has never been easy in Jordan Park.

The historic 24-acre public housing community took root more than 70 years ago on land donated by its namesake, African-American businessman Elder Jordan Sr. Locals like Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett and Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers grew up there.

But the 446 units fell into disrepair. Jordan Park, the city's oldest public housing complex, gained a reputation for concentrated poverty and crime. In 2000, demolition of the dreary, rundown apartments began. A year later, residents eagerly began moving into the first of 237 new units.

The redevelopment of Jordan Park was fueled by $27 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Financing also came from low-income housing tax credits, crucial to attracting private investment, and a $3.1 million loan from the City of St. Petersburg for infrastructure.

The housing authority signed an agreement with the developer, Jordan Park Development Partners — a partnership of the Richman Group of Florida, Inc., and Landex of Jacksonville — that allowed the agency to maintain ownership of the land.

Jordan Park Development Partners would own the buildings, lease the land for free and accept responsibility for maintaining all of it. They also received a monthly HUD subsidy for each occupied unit, which is now $184.

But the new community seemed to have problems from the beginning.

"The council received a lot of complaints at that time about the quality of the construction," said Virginia Littrell, a St. Petersburg Housing Authority commissioner who served on the City Council then.

In 2005, then-Mayor Rick Baker told the housing authority of being "deeply disturbed" by the community's unkempt appearance.

Harry Harvey, vice chair of the housing authority board, said he grew up in public housing. The city has worse housing issues to deal with than those at Jordan Park, he said.

"To me, that's a much bigger story," he said, "because I know that conditions at Jordan Park are a lot better than the conditions in that area."

• • •

Some Jordan Park residents may not agree. Though the community boasted new apartments and fresh landscaping, the sparkle is long gone.

Appliances and bathtubs are now rusted, paint has faded, the concrete on front porches is dirty and the landscaping untended.

Around the corner from the Cohens, past knee-high grass, Sylvia Norris' apartment smelled of mothballs. It's to keep away the rats.

"I'm terrified of them," said Norris, 63, who had to give up her job as a certified nursing assistant because of ill health.

She also lives in fear that the large tree limb hanging over her apartment from the nearby Carter G. Woodson African American Museum next door will break and fall on her home during a storm.

Close by, in another small apartment, Velitta Williams, 60, talked of losing her battle with mold and mildew in her bathroom. She said she even saw something mushroom-like sprouting in a corner.

Next to a kitchen cupboard, where rodents tried to gnaw their way to shelves of food, Williams has plugged in a gadget to keep them at bay.

Beatrice Mullan, 83, is also sick of the rats and the high grass. She shares her home with her 8-year-old grandson, whom she has cared for since he was 5 months old.

"I don't understand why they don't have help out here," she said.

The most recent inspection for Florida Housing Finance Corp. — which monitors properties that receive federal tax credits — was in 2014. (Inspections are conducted every three years). Problems were found in 26 of the 48 units inspected and were corrected, a spokeswoman said.

The housing authority conducts inspections more regularly. The last was in May. Past inspections have found problems such as stair treads in need of repair, roaches, peeling paint, broken blinds, mildew and "evidence of rat infestation."

When the housing authority finds violations, it typically gives the property manager two weeks to fix them, said agency spokeswoman Audra Butler.

But in reality, the agency has little enforcement power over Jordan Park.

Butler said, "we are limited with what we can do under the agreement" signed 15 years ago.

• • •

Officials from Jordan Park Development Partners did not return calls for comment from the Tampa Bay Times.

In 2011, the company hired WinnResidential of Boston to take over management of the property. Last week, the company started sending help: lawn crews to mow the grass and pest control for the rats.

"Our feeling is that we need to move faster and that's what we are going to do," WinnResidential spokesman Ed Cafasso said.

"Our intention is to investigate all of these issues that are being raised, determine the source of the problem and move as quickly as possible to address these issues."

But why were conditions at Jordan Park allowed to deteriorate in the first place?

Cafasso said WinnResidential is looking into that, but is currently focused on correcting what's wrong.

Meanwhile, the housing authority is negotiating to buy the housing complex from Jordan Park Development Partners. The developer's federal tax credits will expire at the end of the year. That's "usually when developers get out," said housing authority chief operating officer Melinda Perry.

The housing authority's $500,000 offer is based on a "right of first refusal" signed in 2001. Once the deal is done, Littrell hopes conditions in Jordan Park will improve.

"We are prepared to buy Jordan Park and oversee it," she said, "which should take care of a huge percentage of the problems out there."

"We really want people to have good lives and you cannot have a good life if a rat runs out of your stove."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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