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Pinellas County affordable housing report doesn't ring true

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche listened to the report on the county's affordable housing programs and thought the results seemed too good to be true.

Over the past three years, community development director Anthony Jones told commissioners Tuesday, affordable housing projects created 9,817 jobs — despite high unemployment and a real estate collapse.

"That ought to be front-page news," said Roche, his voice laced with sarcasm.

Roche was right to be skeptical, as that estimate — along with others Jones offered Tuesday — missed the mark.

Based on the formula Jones cites — $1 million in housing money creates 77 jobs — the correct job creation estimate for the county's $27 million spending is closer to 2,079 jobs.

The county report incorrectly lumped $100 million in private investment with the county's spending.

Mark Hendrickson, a financial consultant for governments who authored the formula in 2009, confirmed that Jones used the measure incorrectly.

"If that's the case, maybe he needs to clarify any of the stats that were mistaken to the commission," Commissioner John Morroni said hours after the meeting, where he called the information great.

Tuesday evening after questions from a Times reporter, Jones sent an e-mail to commissioners saying "we may have made an error." He also said information was provided to him, or it was the best his office could find.

But he stood behind his report as a broader indicator of housing trends and his agency's accomplishments with a $62.5 million portfolio of 1,600 loans.

Commissioners had asked for a review of housing programs after questions persisted among members about what the county accomplishes. A zinging audit last year blasted community development, which oversees the county's affordable housing programs, for shoddy record keeping, questionable concessions to developers and being too cozy with the firms it works with.

A review of housing programs ordered by County Administrator Bob LaSala in the wake of the audit is not yet complete.

Jones' presentation Tuesday also cited the average sales price for a Pinellas home at $208,500 last year — an unexpectedly high figure that caught the eyes of Roche and Morroni, who has worked as a Realtor.

That's because the median sales price —which was $154,000 in 2010 — is more commonly used because it reduces skewing by extremes at both ends of the market. In fact, a financial expert commenting on that part of Jones' report used the median price in his talk, as did other real estate industry speakers.

Jones said his office used the only information available, which was from the Property Appraiser's Office. But the median price is included on the same report on the appraiser's site.

Jones' report also said only 36 of the 889 foreclosed homes in 2010 in Pinellas involved home buyers assisted by his agency.

But that foreclosure count is actually only for December — which Jones acknowledged — a time frame that doesn't include most of the real estate spiral.

There have been 47,252 foreclosure cases filed in Pinellas since 2007, including 10,946 last year.

"I didn't do the research," Jones said.

LaSala, who said he did not preview the report, declined to comment until he could evaluate the data.

Jones said he didn't feel any added scrutiny from the board, attributing the questions to having new commissioners.

But budget pressure is looming.

Roche wants to shift some of the $15 million from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax away from affordable housing to other projects.

Roche has questioned the effectiveness of the housing programs, including whether people who received county aid ended up in the housing meltdown.

In response, Jones led a three-hour presentation Tuesday from a dozen speakers, many of whom do business with county housing programs. Most spoke in support of the county's affordable housing work, noting that tightening credit and higher standards for down payments were crimping first-time buyers.

Also, they said, foreclosed homes aren't easy to purchase, with cash buyers making up a large part of the market.

Janna Sosebee told commissioners that the $107,500 home she's buying in Clearwater would have been out of reach for years without the $8,000 deferred loan from the county.

"I appreciate the fact that this down payment assistance is not a handout," said Sosebee, who is single and an administrator for a financial adviser.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County affordable housing report doesn't ring true 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:41pm]
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