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Ethics panel okays city housing deal

The state Ethics Commission has cleared the way for the former Leisure Manor retirement complex to be converted by an arm of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority into apartments. The apartments would rent to both low-income residents and to the general public.

The Housing Authority in April had a purchase contract on the three-building complex at 316 and 336 Fourth Avenue N, owned by First Presbyterian Church.

But its board decided not to buy the buildings until the Ethics Commission ruled on whether the purchase was a conflict since Arthur Ross III, a Housing Authority board member, also is pastor of First Presbyterian. Ross disclosed his relationship with each boardand abstained from voting or discussing the deal.

Still, the Ethics Commission ruled late last week that it could be a conflict if the Housing Authority directly bought the property from the church. But since the authority plans to form a separate non-profit agency to buy Leisure Manor and another non-profit agency to supply the money for the purchase, the transaction does not violate the state's ethics code, the commission ruled.

The board is expected to form the non-profit agencies sometime this summer, possibly as soon as its next meeting. Also at its next meeting, the board is expected to decide whether to begin renegotiating the Leisure Manor deal.

Edward White Jr., executive director of the Housing Authority, said the board plans to start several non-profit agencies to develop affordable housing in the city.

The authority will form a non-profit "master development corporation" and transfer the $4-million it received for the sale of Laurel Park to that agency. The agency, in turn, can use the $4-million to finance projects by other non-profit agencies.

The non-profit agencies can take advantage of tax credits and other federal programs that the Housing Authority could not, White said. And, he said, the authority can make the $4-million stretch farther by using it to finance projects than by using it to construct housing directly.

The money would build about 67 new housing units, he said. By setting up the separate corporations, the affordable housing market should be expanded by 500 to 1,000 units, he said.

This is not the first time the Housing Authority has formed separate agencies for housing. A separate non-profit corporation already owns the Rogall housing complex, which the authority manages. And the authority's board also serves as the board for the Greenview housing development.