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Worried tenants question officials // Laurel Park residents talk to authority

ST. PETERSBURG - For those Laurel Park tenants worried about leaving the public housing complex without enough money or a home to move into, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority has a simple message: don't worry. Not only will all 158 families be able to find new homes by the May 14 deadline, they will leave with at least a year's worth of paid rent and plenty of money to cover their moving costs, the authority's executive director Edward White Jr. said during a tenant meeting Wednesday. The meeting was closed to reporters.

Not all of the tenants were convinced.

"I'm satisfied it'll work if they do what they say they're going to do and keep the rent the same and provide counseling to help us relocate," said Sharon Barbery, a 29-year-old mother of two.

Her neighbor, Mary Byrd, said she thinks White's goals are unrealistic considering the tenants have small incomes.

"He's not looking out for the people. I want to get out of this ghetto, not go from ghetto to ghetto," she said.

The Laurel Park tenants have to move because the city agreed last month to buy the complex from the Housing Authority for $4.485-million.

White told the tenants Wednesday that they have 90 days to move out of the aging complex so the city can proceed with its plans to demolish Laurel Park and pave a parking lot for the Florida Suncoast Dome across the street.

Reporters were barred from the two-hour meeting, which under the state's sunshine law should have been open. White said there wasn't enough room in the day-care center where the meeting was held. He also said he didn't want tenants to be distracted.

"We're not having a secret meeting, we're having a closed meeting," White said. "I don't think the press would add anything to tonight. In fact, I think the press would detract from the meeting."

During an earlier press conference, White said tenants can find homes if they just look for them.

"There's an abundant number of homes in St. Petersburg and all of Pinellas County has a very high vacancy rate," White said. "We've been inundated lately with calls from interested property owners" who want to rent. "So we're very comfortable it can be done. If were weren't, we wouldn't do it."

The tenants say they are worried they won't be able to find new homes they can afford and have expressed dissatisfaction with the $550 the Housing Authority has agreed to pay each family to cover their moving costs.

"That $550 is not going to get it," 20-year-old Frances Bentley said. "I know the price they sold (Laurel Park) for, and I think I deserve more money than that."

Additionally, Lydia Castle, a Gulfcoast Legal Services attorney who is representing the tenants, said, "I'm afraid pressure is going to be put on the tenants to get them to move before they have a chance to find an adequate place to live." The agency provides free legal services to those who cannot afford it.

White said a temporary Housing Authority office will be set up at Laurel Park to help tenants find homes and move.

And he tried to alleviate tenants' concerns about money by explaining that the federal housing certificates and vouchers they will receive to find other homes will add up to about $6,000 in rent a year.

Being awarded a certificate means that no matter where they move, the tenants will pay the same monthly rent they've been paying while living in Laurel Park. The federal government, White said, will pay the rest.

For example, White said earlier, the average Laurel Park tenant pays $80 in monthly rent. If that tenant moved into a private, two-bedroom apartment with a $441 rent, the tenant would continue paying $80 and the federal government would pay the remaining $361. The certificates also would cover any amount of security deposit that exceeds $80 under the same example.

White is hoping that a majority of the tenants will take advantage of the voucher program because nearly all apartments are filled in the city's other public housing complexes.

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