To persuade developers to build affordable housing, some Pinellas County local governments award them a "density bonus" — permission to build more units than normally allowed to compensate for the profit the developer will not make on the less expensive units. Density bonuses result in more affordable housing, which is needed, but they can also create communities so packed with housing that residents' quality of life is negatively affected. That's a real concern and one that recently led the Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board to reject preliminary plans for an especially dense Tarpon Springs Housing Authority project.
Members said the plans to replace the Mango Circle public housing complex did not show enough green space or children's play areas.
"You look at the plan and all they had was buildings and asphalt," said board member William Vinson. "It would not leave suitable room for kids to play ... It's not a very good environment. Not a very safe environment."
The Mango Circle complex now has 60 apartments on 9.5 acres. The plan to replace it calls for 176 apartments. A basic site plan for the project shows nearly all of the property filled by parking lots and two- and three-story buildings, most containing 24 apartments each. A stormwater retention area provides the only significant unpaved open space in the complex.
The plan calls for the current Mango Circle apartments, built in 1973 and dilapidated, to be demolished after the residents are temporarily relocated. The new complex would be built in two phases and would have 60 public housing apartments, with the remainder of the units available at rates considered affordable to people with low and moderate incomes.
A majority of the Planning and Zoning Board members voted against the plan at their April meeting, not only because they believe the density is too high for Tarpon Springs, but also because of the lack of green space and outdoor play areas. The complex would have a small swimming pool, clubhouse/office and tot lot.
Housing Authority director Pat Weber seemed surprised by the board's concerns. Discussion of things like green space and other amenities would normally be a part of site plan review, but that is not what she was seeking from the Planning and Zoning Board.
Instead Weber, along with the Housing Authority's development partner, Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group, went to the board to ask for the affordable housing density bonus. Clearly expecting approval, they were scheduled to make the same pitch to the City Commission at its meeting last week. Now, City Commission consideration has been delayed until May 19. The Housing Authority and developer need the approval before applying for tax credits for the project.
Planning and Zoning Board members aren't the only ones concerned about the project. The city has received letters and petitions from neighbors who oppose it. Many live in mobile home parks that abut Mango Circle and they say the new complex would be too dense and put too much strain on city services. Some opponents have accused the current Mango Circle residents of scattering litter and making too much noise.
New affordable complexes typically are more dense than what they replace, but that is not always a reason to reject them. Well-planned new construction that replaces outdated, undersized and rundown housing improves the neighborhood, can erase the unfair stigma associated with affordable housing, and can raise the quality of life for residents. Their pride in the new surroundings often means they take better care of the property.
Design is the key. Buildings should be attractive and well-built. Because affordable rental complexes often have a lot of young families, it is important that they include open space and shade trees so families can be together outdoors. Pinnacle Housing Group, which specializes in construction of affordable housing, apparently understands the need for such amenities, since its complexes in other areas include playgrounds, nature trails, picnic areas, even volleyball courts.
Weber and the Housing Authority board should be advocates for that kind of complex for Mango Circle's current and future residents, too, and they should not seek city approval until their plan is modified to satisfy the Planning and Zoning Board's reasonable concerns.