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County seeks farm worker housing

Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday plowed ahead with plans for federally-financed farm worker housing in Ruskin, leaving similar proposals for Dover and Wimauma temporarily untouched.

Despite complaints from some farm workers who said the real need for housing was in Wimauma, the county agreed to work with the Cornerstone Group, a Coral Gables developer, to get $1.2-million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development money to help obtain other financing to cover the $5.1-million cost of the project on 14 acres at east Shell Point Road and 15th Street NE in Ruskin.

The 80-unit apartment complex would feature three- and four-bedroom units renting for $326 to $355 per month, in 20 single-story quadroplex buildings, and offer on-site child care, mobile unit health screenings and transportation to Tampa Employment Services, said project spokeswoman Paula Ryan.

Cornerstone Group's proposal was the first choice of a five member county staff committee, which has given two other prospective developers until Friday to submit revised plans for their own farm worker housing projects:

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg wants to build a $4-million community of 50 single family homes at its San Jose Migrant Mission, 13618 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in Dover.

Wimauma Community Ltd. of Cape Canaveral has proposed a $6.4-million 84-unit farm worker community northwest of North Street and Fifth Street in Wimauma. Both projects also would offer on-site social services.

An additional $1-million in HUD money is available as leveraged financing for either of the two remaining projects, or for a joint venture between Catholic Charities and Wimauma Community Ltd., according to Kevin McConnell, director of the county's Housing and Community Development Department.

Some 25 farm workers and their advocates attended Wednesday's County Commission meeting to lobby for the Wimauma proposal.

"Wimauma is our crisis. In Wimauma we have the most deplorable housing in all of south county," said Ricardo Meana of Affordable Housing of East Tampa Bay. "I realize there were five administrators tried and true who went through these various proposals, but who spoke for the farm workers?"

Wimauma Community Ltd. has offered the only project that would not use growers' money to subsidize the farm workers' rents. Both Catholic Charities and Cornerstone Group representatives have said they were contemplating use of agriculture employers' subsidies to supplement rents, a practice criticized by some farm worker advocates.

McConnell said an Oct. 18 visit to Hillsborough County by Cipriano Garza, special assistant for farm worker housing to U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, signaled support for additional HUD funding.

"They are very interested in our project and have given us a go ahead, an "attaboy' for our efforts to date," McConnell said. "Perhaps down the road we can do all three projects."

McConnell added that other affordable housing units are scheduled to be built by several non-profit organizations in the Wimauma area in the near future.