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Change is coming to low-income St. Petersburg housing complex

ST. PETERSBURG — Less than a mile north of Tropicana Field is an avocado green low-income housing complex surrounded by a white fence.

For the past 21 years, Joyce Grogan has managed Jamestown Townhomes and Apartments with the pride she thinks the place deserves.

"You want to see my hair stand on end? Call it a 'project,' " said Grogan, 69. "I always called it a complex and a community. I don't refer to the people here as 'tenants.' They're 'residents.' We're not like other public housing. We're different."

Jamestown is the city's only public housing complex. Residents there say it's free of the squalor and crime that can characterize low-income housing.

Still, a city audit is raising concerns about how the complex and its 76 units are managed. It calls into question Grogan's management style and concludes she didn't keep adequate records or follow required procedures.

The audit recommended that officials consider shifting oversight of Jamestown to a private company. Whatever is decided, Mayor Bill Foster already has said the complex will be managed differently.

"It's a business," Foster said. "And we're going to have it managed more like a business."

Feeling betrayed by an audit that she calls unfair, Grogan retired early.

"I liked my job, I had a passion for Jamestown," she said. "I had a firsthand knowledge of people suffering and in pain. These people have fallen on tough times. If it's our mission to provide safe and affordable housing to low- and middle-income people, how are we going to do that if we compete with the free market?"

• • •

With its low crime, well-kept lawns and low buildings, Jamestown defies common perceptions of public housing.

Only 25 percent of residents get federal housing assistance. The rest pay their own way. Just look at the parking lot on weekdays, Grogan said. It's empty because people are at work.

Rents range between $525 for a one-bedroom to $1,065 for a four-bedroom. Rents cover all operating expenses, so it doesn't cost the city anything to run.

For many residents, the Jamestown complex was and is something of a rarity — a promise kept by a city that vowed to provide quality housing in an area familiar with neglect.

"You don't see many things go wrong here," said Pamela Brown, who has lived at Jamestown for more than a year.

The four-acre complex is in an area once called Methodist Town. It was developed as a slum by white landlords in the 1900s.

The area became a symbol of segregation's effects. It had no parks, no quality housing.

But it did have a close-knit group of residents willing to fight for change.

The area renamed itself Jamestown in 1974, a nod to its unofficial mayor Chester James.

Mounting public pressure prompted the city to build the Jamestown complex, which opened in 1976.

It was in the middle of this history that Joyce Grogan grew up. She graduated from Gibbs High in 1959, and left Florida for Washington, D.C., to work as an administrative assistant.

She moved back in 1982 to care for her ailing mother. A year later, she was hired as an administrative assistant at Jamestown.

• • •

In a report released in late April, senior auditor Boriana Pollard concluded records required to operate the complex were "inadequate, inaccurate, not timely, and not complete."

While the audit didn't suggest that any money was missing, its findings highlighted glaring omissions. Tenants had past due accounts with no documented explanation.

A property management software program wasn't being used. Instead, Grogan was tracking residents through an Excel spreadsheet prone to errors. Late fees weren't consistently assessed or documented. One woman was allowed to clean four vacant units in lieu of rent.

While the audit noted that Jamestown received minimal support and supervision from the city, it concluded Grogan "has not developed the necessary technical and organizational skills required to manage an operation of this nature."

Grogan, who is an accredited property manager, acknowledges the disorganization. But she insists some audit conclusions were incorrect, unfairly holding her responsible for issues, such as staffing, beyond her control.

The economy has taken a toll at the complex, she said. She lost her two assistants. Just one would have helped her keep up with the paperwork, said Grogan, who consistently earned high marks on performance reviews.

Grogan acknowledges she should have done a better job documenting the breaks she gave to residents. But she makes no apologies for the help, stressing that it cost the city nothing.

"Some of this did get away from me," she said. "But I've been alone out here for the past two years. … I've never seen it this bad."

"You have to make adjustments. We're supposed to help people, not help keep them down."

Cheronda Hubbard was one of those in need. A working mother of two, Hubbard was kicked out of an apartment when the landlord failed to pay the mortgage. She needed a place fast.

Grogan let her move in without a security deposit but later got the Pinellas County Opportunity Council to donate it.

"She worked hard getting me here," Hubbard said. "She felt really bad because she didn't want my kids and I to go to a shelter.

"If it was anyone else, I'm not sure I'd be in my place now."

Others revere Grogan just as much.

"Managers can be the glue in the community," said resident Betty Reed, 64. "That's what Joyce has been. She did a lot for the people who lived here."

Recently, the residents hosted a retirement party for Grogan. They paid for it themselves, buying chicken wings, a fruit and cheese platter, a Publix butter cream cake. Some brought covered dishes of pasta salad and seafood casseroles.

Grogan's eyes filled with tears as residents told her what city officials haven't.

"We're going to miss her," said Bettye Means, 72. "It won't be the same with her gone."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Change is coming to low-income St. Petersburg housing complex 06/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 12:00am]

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