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Upheaval at Hernando apartment complexes inevitable after years of neglect

The washer and dryer in Shirley Leonard's apartment at Hillside Estates work just fine. The walls were painted not too long ago. The roof doesn't leak.

Sure, the apartment could use central air conditioning, said Leonard, 65, "but it doesn't need to be torn down. … I don't have a problem with it.''

It was strange visiting Hillside Estates, on Brooksville's east side, Monday evening.

I saw more happy kids riding bikes, more mothers standing outside chatting and fewer drug dealers and signs of obvious disrepair than I have in years. The lawns are mowed; the streets seem safe.

Yet the Brooksville Housing Authority plans to tear it down. Same for the other complex it owns and operates, Summit Villas, on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard.

Together they are worth less than $3 million, according to the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office. An architectural study commissioned by the authority said repairing and modernizing them would cost $17 million.

So the authority's board of directors voted this summer to seek a demolition permit from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The bulldozers might not show up for a couple of years, but it seems likely that at some point residents will have to move into privately owned apartments or rental houses subsidized with vouchers from the federal government.

The residents will move temporarily if the housing authority decides to rebuild the apartments or permanently if it decides not to, which, given the number of cheap rentals on the market, would seem to make more sense.

Look at the architect's report and it seems the authority doesn't have much choice but to tear down the apartments. Just at Hillside Estates, the bill would be more than $2.1 million to shore up the walls and foundations damaged by settling, and to demolish and rebuild the three apartment buildings too far gone to fix. Replacing the curbs, sidewalks and concrete driveways would cost about $800,000.

But there's settling in a lot of Brooksville neighborhoods. A lot of sidewalks are cracked.

That's not to say it's a good idea to pour money into these complexes at this point. There is too much wrong that paint jobs and the current management's attentiveness to maintenance (so the residents told me) can't cover up.

But these apartments were built only 37 years ago. That's old for buildings only if they've been neglected. They could be in decent shape now and for decades to come if they'd been kept up.

The housing authority got a lot of money to do just that over the years, including $470,000 worth of federal grants in 2000 and 2001.

That was toward the end of the 26-year term of former executive director Betty Trent. Along with longtime program manager Joe Ann Bennett, Trent was convicted of stealing a relatively small sum, about $40,000, that was supposed to go for repairs. Trent and Bennett split the money with Bennett's nephew, who did just enough work to cover their tracks.

We don't know if they did the same with the bigger sums they received. But we know there was a lot of money spent on slap-dash plumbing, substandard wiring, ill-fitting doors and crummy plumbing fixtures. And we now know the ultimate cost of all their neglect: $17 million.

Upheaval at Hernando apartment complexes inevitable after years of neglect 09/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 8:17pm]
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