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Being fair to Laurel Park residents

It is no small accomplishment that St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have come to an agreement on the city's purchase of the Laurel Park housing project. The deal, which was reached after lengthy, sometimes prickly negotiations, will provide the 158 families who now occupy the authority's second-oldest housing unit with better places to live and also will make the land available for parking near the Florida Suncoast Dome.

The sale and the efforts of those who made it work should be applauded as a positive opportunity for St. Petersburg.

There is, however, one critical detail that threatens to negate the good that could result from leveling the deteriorating public housing project: the amount of money that Laurel Park residents are entitled to under federal regulation for moving costs, $550 per family.

That is not a realistic amount, and it is unfair to expect residents to make do with such a small payment.

The tangible costs alone of relocation can run high. Though in some instances utility deposits are transferable from residence to residence, in other cases new deposits and connection fees have to be paid. In St. Petersburg, an electricity deposit is $130 and one for gas starts at $25, plus switch-on fees, and turning on the water costs $98.50. It costs about $50 to have phone service connected, plus a deposit starting at $25 if a person hasn't had phone service in town for 12 consecutive months during the previous two years. And if residents don't have a truck or a friend with one, it will cost to have their belongings moved. Generally, public housing residents don't have that kind of cash in their pockets.

Even if $550 would cover such material costs, the price of relocating is far greater when the psychological toll is considered.

Laurel Park residents have had to live with uncertainty about their future since the stadium began to take shape and city talk focused on what an eyesore the housing project would be near the brand new dome.

Emphasis was placed on how much better it would be to turn the site into a parking lot for people coming to see a baseball game or concert or some other event.

Understandably, Laurel Park residents are upset about the moving allowance. Now that a deal has been reached, the city has a moral obligation to help ensure the residents are well-treated.

The city should make a clear commitment to work with the housing authority to relocate the 158 Laurel Park families throughout the community if they choose not to move to another of three public complexes. The city also should pledge to cooperate with permit and zoning approvals when housing to replace Laurel Park is constructed.

Both efforts would be in step with city officials' expressed interest in assuring a good supply of quality low-income housing in St. Petersburg.

Most urgently, however, the costs of moving residents out of Laurel Park should be covered completely, and the city should work with the housing authority to overcome HUD restrictions or contribute more city money. One suggestion would be a combination of some cash with a voucher system that would allow utilities to be reimbursed for deposits and connection fees. Resident expenses above the amount of cash could be reimbursed upon presentation of receipts.

Whatever payment system is devised, Laurel Park residents should not be left without adequate resources to move. It would be a shameful mark against St. Petersburg if the human element in the Laurel Park deal were so overlooked.