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Brooksville housing complexes appear set to be razed

BROOKSVILLE — For years, the Brooksville Housing Authority operated under a cloud of scandal, mismanagement and dysfunction.

The federal government has an official label for it: "troubled."

The cloud lifted late last month when the housing board got word from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the authority has officially shed the "troubled' designation it held for nine years. The finances are in order, the occupancy rate is high and the turnaround time between tenants is short, a HUD official said.

Now that the major administrative problems are history, the housing board can focus on its efforts to garner permission from HUD to raze the agency's two aging subsidized housing complexes, Hillside Estates and Summit Villas, and relocate residents using Section 8 vouchers.

It now appears likely the complexes will face the wrecking ball, according to housing board Chairman Randy Woodruff. The application is in the final phases of HUD review, and indications from the department are cause for optimism, Woodruff said.

"Any day we should be getting approval," he said.

It's unclear what that means in actual time, however. A HUD spokeswoman would say only that the application is still under review.

Residents would begin to move out within 180 days of HUD's approval of the plan, and the relocation process would take about a year, according to the application.

The board voted in summer 2010 to start the process after an architectural study concluded that repairing and modernizing the apartment complexes — comprised of 126 total units in 52 residential buildings, all built in the 1970s — would cost a little more than $17 million. The cost to raze them: about $1.1 million.

Settling that has resulted from unstable soil is a problem at Hillside Estates, located off Union Street near the now-shuttered Rogers' Christmas House Village. Three buildings are uninhabitable, and several more have significant cracking and other damage.

Because of its limited budget, the authority would need five years just to pay for needed roof work, executive director Tommy Brooks told the City Council in December. The HUD application requires a letter of support from the local government, and the council has given its blessing.

The relocation plan hinges on providing Section 8 vouchers for tenants to use for affordable housing anywhere in the country. The authority would offer counseling services to help residents navigate the Section 8 program, find new places to live and fill out paperwork.

The authority also will cover application fees, security deposits and moving expenses. Tenants would receive a 90-day notice from the earliest date they could be required to move and then a 30-day notice with an exact moving date. The notices would not come before a new residence is found. Tenants who refuse to move can be evicted.

The plan has sparked an outcry from residents who don't want to be uprooted. Some of those most concerned live in Summit Villas, a complex of single-story apartment buildings on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard occupied mainly by tenants who are elderly, disabled or both.

Board members have acknowledged the move will be difficult for some, but they remain convinced the tenants will be better off for it.

"We've got to keep these people in the loop," housing board member Gary Schraut said. "It's a scary thing for them. It will never be a seamless move. But hopefully we can make it a really, really good move."

The demolition would leave the authority with two HUD-owned vacant pieces of property. Some housing board members and City Council members say that will be the right time to fold the city operations into the Hernando County Housing Authority. City Council members started talking about a merger years ago, but county housing board members said they would not consider it until the city authority had shed its "troubled" designation.

"HUD would not object to such a merger," department spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan told the Times last week.

The fate of the vacant property would ultimately be up to HUD. The demolition application, noting the increased demand for affordable housing in the county, suggests that the land could be transferred to a public-private partnership group to develop a housing project and possibly other services, such as a day care center, to benefit low-income residents.

Meanwhile, Schraut said, the city authority is working to address concerns raised by the Nov. 9 arrest of Brenda Yvette Colondres, a Hillside Estates resident who was on the housing board at the time. The City Council subsequently removed her.

Brooksville Police, working with HUD investigators, allege that Colondres allowed her on-again, off-again boyfriend to live in her subsidized apartment in Hillside Estates and that she falsified information on her lease so her rent would remain as low as $15 a month. Had Colondres been forthright about her income and who lived in the apartment, she would have paid an estimated $13,000 more in rent over three years, investigators said.

Colondres, 31, was charged with one count of grand theft and one count of public assistance housing fraud. She denies the allegations.

Police Chief George Turner has said it was obvious the boyfriend lived there. If that is the case, Schraut said, why weren't Brooks and his staff aware of it? Colondres' apartment is just around the corner from the housing authority office.

Turner has said more arrests for similar fraud charges are pending.

Brooks has declined to comment about the case, and the board opted not discuss Colondres' arrest at its meeting earlier this month.

The authority is drawing up a policy based on HUD guidelines that explicitly states guests can stay no more than 14 consecutive days and no more than 30 days in a year.

"We know there's an issue down there with people defrauding and stealing from us, and we're now putting policies in place to stop that," Schraut said.

The Colondres case shouldn't overshadow what Brooks has done since he was hired in 2008 with a mandate to get the authority out of "troubled" status, Woodruff said.

"I think overall Tommy's done a great job," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Brooksville housing complexes appear set to be razed 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 8:35pm]
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