St. Petersburg City Council throws wrench into Housing Authority’s Jordan Park plans

Teresa Willingham outside her apartment in St. Petersburg earlier this month. Willingham used in live in Jordan Park, which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new senior complex. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Teresa Willingham outside her apartment in St. Petersburg earlier this month. Willingham used in live in Jordan Park, which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new senior complex. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published May 24 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council rejected a request from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority for a letter the agency said would help it proceed with a $43 million makeover of Jordan Park.

There’s also a question about whether the housing authority, which took over Jordan Park more than a year ago amid residents’ complaints about rats, mold and inoperable appliances, will get the approximately $7 million it’s requesting from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.

Specifically, the agency is requesting $2.4 million from the city to help renovate 206 apartments and build a three-story, 60-unit complex for seniors. But during a contentious May 17 discussion, council members showed little enthusiasm for providing the funding.

Still, all may not be lost.

Rob Gerdes, the city’s administrator of neighborhood affairs, said Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration is "going to work cooperatively" with the agency and council "to try to find a path to improve Jordan Park for the residents."

Housing authority CEO Tony Love said the funding is critical to the agency’s plans, which include demolishing and replacing a section of Jordan Park known as the Historic Village. Plans to demolish the 31-unit section incensed several council members, as well as Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum next door.

Scott, who spoke of being "grieved," questioned the motives and a report behind the decision to demolish the cluster of one-story, craftsman-style buildings, portions of which are thought to date to 1937.

She said Jordan Park was "the first community that was created and developed for African Americans here in St. Petersburg."

Love said renovations would be cost prohibitive because of the age of its infrastructure.

Council members also scolded the agency for giving them little time to consider its request for a letter that should show the Department of Housing and Urban Development the city’s potential financial support for the Jordan Park plans.

"Your emergency has become our emergency," Council member Amy Foster said of the looming May 19 deadline during a committee meeting.

"We’re always the last one to hear of anything," Council member Charlie Gerdes said.

The city’s relationship with the agency had been rocky under Love’s predecessor, Darrell Irions. When Love arrived, the council "went out of its way to make it clear there needed to be a new partnership and collaboration," Gerdes told the Tampa Bay Times. "We made it clear to them that we were looking for transparency. It appears that hasn’t changed."

The agency is working with HUD on a program to convert Jordan Park — the city’s oldest public housing — to Section 8, or affordable housing. The shift, which will also affect 134 public housing units on St. Petersburg’s northside, would let the agency enter into long-term contracts using public and private money and equity to finance renovations and construct new units.

Last year, the city forgave a $3.1 million loan for infrastructure tied to Jordan Park’s previous redevelopment. The deteriorating apartments were demolished in 2000 and rebuilt with $27 million from HUD, low-income housing tax credits, a $500,000 federal home loan and the city’s loan.

At the time, the agency signed an agreement with a developer, Jordan Park Development Partners, that allowed it to retain ownership of the land near 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S. Meanwhile, the developer owned the buildings, paid nothing to lease the land and was responsible maintaining the property.

The housing authority bought back the troubled property in March 2017. By December, Love said, it had spent more than $1 million on new air conditioning and repairs.

Gerdes, whose duties include overseeing the codes department, said the city hopes the housing authority can "find a way to finance repairs," because "numerous exterior violations" still need to be corrected.

Of the $2.4 million the agency is requesting from the city, it hopes to get $2.1 million from the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area to use for renovations.

The remaining $300,000, which Love said would pay for infrastructure for the new senior housing, could come from the Community Development Block Grant program. On May 18, a committee rejected the grant request.

Council vice chair Steve Kornell doesn’t want to give the agency any more money. He told the Times that while he understands that the housing authority was not in charge when Jordan Park fell into disrepair, it should have known about the problems. "That does not inspire confidence in me," he said.

The agency has also asked Pinellas County for $4.5 million from its land trust and housing trust funds. But in a May 15 letter, Pinellas County administrator Mark Woodard told Love that "funding is not presently available in the amount requested."

City Council members also are unhappy about the residents — among them the elderly and disabled — who were forced to leave the Historic Village ahead of its planned demolition.

"We’re talking about people here, not just buildings," Council member Gina Driscoll said.

Love said residents were given vouchers and assistance to find new housing. But Teresa Willingham, 52, said her new one-bedroom unit at the Palms Apartments, 2800 Fourth Street S, was too small, depended on an inadequate window air conditioning unit, and its second floor location was difficult because of her arthritis. "I’ve got no business going up these stairs," she said one recent afternoon.

Love said Willingham and other former Jordan Park residents had been "in total control" of where they went to live. Willingham’s apartment "does meet housing standards, but she would like other amenities," he said, adding that her landlord has agreed to let her move.

Charles and Frances Cohens, both 74, settled into a new apartment that became overrun with sewage.

"The bathroom flooded over and everything was all over the house. All the feces all over the house," Frances Cohens said.

They also ended up at the Palms Apartments and are comfortable. But, said Cohens, they miss Jordan Park and "might" return when the promised senior housing is built.

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