TAMPA — The Tampa Housing Authority will buy a $4.2 million headquarters in the West Shore area over the objections of Mayor Pam Iorio.
Officials said the building will relieve crowding at the agency's main office in North Boulevard Homes, the city's oldest public housing project. The agency's board approved the sale last week.
Critics of the decision, including Iorio and agency commissioner Rubin Padgett, argue the agency doesn't need the office building and should focus on creating more affordable housing for the poor.
"There are many things that could have been done to alleviate the pressure," Padgett said. "I don't think that structure, where we are, has outlived its usefulness."
Iorio has criticized the move but declined further comment last week now that the agency has decided to purchase the building. Iorio appointed the seven housing authority commissioners, but doesn't have veto power over their decisions.
Leroy Moore, the housing authority's chief operating officer, walked through the main office last week, pointing out tiny work areas and jammed hallways. Most concerning, he said, is a row of counselors who discuss sensitive financial and medical issues with residents in subsidized housing. Each counselor shares a room, creating privacy concerns for residents.
When the economy sours, demand for affordable housing spikes. Nearly every home managed by the agency is filled, compared with a roughly 85 percent occupancy for private housing. This has put about 12,000 people on a waiting list for public or subsidized homes.
"As we continue to grow, we need more administrative staff to manage the larger portfolio," Moore said. "You just can't add and add and add in a building like this."
The new location, a 64,000-square-foot building at 5301 W Cypress St., will hold about 150 workers now spread among five offices. The agency has budgeted $1 million to renovate the 25-year-old building. Moore said he hopes to move by next fall.
The housing authority will still maintain separate offices at each complex, including at North Boulevard Homes, to deal with residents' concerns. The main office, Moore said, is primarily visited by landlords, contractors and residents who pay for their homes with vouchers and live throughout the city.
"It's not (used by) Ms. Jones who lives in Apartment 102," he said.
Padgett, the lone commissioner to raise concerns about the sale, said the agency had other options. For example, he pointed to a building across the street from the main office that was destroyed by fire a few months ago. A renovated building could have relieved some of the pressure, he said.
He also said the agency owns a full city block at 34th and Chipco streets where it could have built headquarters.
Money for the new building will come from two sources, both described as reserves by Moore:
• $1.7 million, including closing costs, from surplus administrative fees. The federal government gives the housing authority a small percentage of each Section 8 housing voucher for administration. If the agency runs the program for less, it holds the extra in reserve. After the sale, the agency will have about $1.8 million in that fund.
• $2.5 million from income earned by the nonprofit North Tampa Housing Development Corp., which manages a separate housing program with the federal government. The sale leaves that fund with $6.7 million.
Moore said those two funds are chiefly used to supplement programs when federal funding falls short. For example, reserve money helped pay for the Encore project, a 30-acre mixed-use site tucked between downtown and Ybor City.
Moore said it wouldn't make sense to use the reserve money to build more affordable homes. Without a new annual source of federal cash for those homes, the agency could not subsidize them for public housing renters who pay an average of $125 each month.
And with real estate prices depressed, Moore said, now is a good time to buy a new office: "It's a matter of taking advantage of the real estate market at the right time."
The purchase appears to be a good deal, according to Ken Lane of the commercial real estate firm Lane Witherspoon and Carswell. Lane, who was not connected to the sale, pointed to a similar situation at a building across the street.
That building sold in July for about $61 per square foot. The housing authority bought its new headquarters for $62 per square foot. The $4 million price tag is lower than both the sales price in 2006 ($6 million) and a recent appraisal ($4.7 million).
Lane speculated that the building's current owner likely sold the property at a loss because more than half of it was vacant and not generating revenue.
Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.