TARPON SPRINGS — When Kalena Warren, 29, moved from a homeless shelter to Tarpon Springs public housing, she hoped for a clean, safe space for her four children and baby on the way.
But in the dilapidated, three-bedroom duplex at the Mango Circle complex, she found unexpected dangers, she said. The gas stove leaked. Electrical outlet covers were missing. And toilet water drained across the linoleum floor, causing circles of mold to form on the walls.
"I don't feel safe raising my kids here," Warren said. "Just because you're a single mom or parent doesn't mean you should have to live like this."
Pat Weber, director of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority, knows the public housing needs work — not just at Mango Circle, but across the country. For more than a decade, the federal government has steadily slashed funding to housing for the poor.
That's why Weber is among the first in the country to join a pilot program by the Obama administration to steer private money toward the country's deteriorating public housing stock.
The program is a rule waiver of sorts. It frees housing authorities, the local bodies that own and manage public housing under federal guidelines, to seek money from private banks or other corporations that might invest in a property with the hope of using tax credits and other incentives to turn a profit.
Under the program, housing authorities could also use their public housing properties as collateral for loans. The risk? If housing authorities can't repay the loans, they could lose the properties to foreclosure.
In Florida, only Tarpon Springs and two South Florida housing authorities are participating in the program, called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD.
"I'm a risk-taker," Weber said, adding that 225 public housing units in Tarpon Springs could get upgrades through the program. "And this won't cost me anything but my time."
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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal housing agency, bills the pilot as a new era for housing authorities, which in recent decades have struggled to stretch government funding to stem the crush of need.
Housing authorities often have no choice but to sell or demolish distressed properties. In Pinellas County alone, housing authorities disposed of more than 1,000 units between 2004 and 2009, most of which were built in the 1970s, said Debbie Johnson at the Pinellas County Housing Authority. Meanwhile, many eligible low-income people waited two to five years to get housing.
Nationwide, about 10,000 public housing units are lost per year, according to HUD.
Johnson is considering joining the pilot, but she's not on board yet.
"It's an excellent program and a phenomenal option but just not right for us at this time," Johnson said.
Pinellas County, like other housing authorities, has gotten creative to diversify its income stream. One popular tactic: building apartments for middle-income tenants, whose rent helps pay for people with low or no income.
The Pinellas County Housing Authority owns 1,100 such units, which, combined with tax credits, federal grants, a contribution from the city of Largo and other sources, have helped to fund construction of 153 new low-income units for seniors scheduled to open in 2014, Johnson said.
Her focus is on securing tax credits and other funding, she said, adding that Pinellas County also has a robust Section 8 program, which gives vouchers to tenants who can find their own apartments.
RAD has the potential to reduce the shortage of public housing, but it's not a slam dunk, said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and member of the panel that will evaluate the program for HUD.
RAD would require most housing authorities, which generally have few employees, to engage with the private sector in a way never done before.
"I think they're trying to be smart about how they get a more sustainable funding stream," Popkin said. "Hopefully, if this goes well, other housing authorities will be interested."
Linda Couch of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group, said housing authorities only have to look at recent history to know they should be cautious.
The Hope VI program, a 1993 attempt to mingle federal and private money for low-income housing, brought mixed results.
The Tampa Bay Housing Authority won awards for its success with Hope VI, using public and private investments to demolish distressed housing and replace it with mixed-income buildings at Belmont Heights Estates, in East Tampa.
But many national housing advocates viewed Hope VI as a failure, with some public housing demolished and then never rebuilt due to bureaucratic constraints. In some cases, private investors took the tax credits and then built big complexes that offered only a few low-income units, Couch said.
The Miami Herald, in 2006, published a sweeping investigation on how the Miami-Dade housing agency squandered millions in Hope VI money, helping well-connected developers get rich and leaving the poor to rotting homes or to shelters.
"Mixed-income is often a euphemism for very few poor people," Couch said. "You had a lot of displacement and a lot of loss of housing." Still, Weber, at the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority, believes the new program is worth a try. It could lead to a new way of doing business, she said.
"This is a huge project, I mean huge," Weber said. "If this all works out, it's going to be wonderful."
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