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Condos turn blemish to bright spot

Two years ago, the two rows of boarded up apartments at 2052 Kings Highway, just south of the border that separates Clearwater and Dunedin, were an eyesore.

The 28 units had been abandoned for a year, and crime was steadily rising.

The Clearwater Housing Authority saw the property and knew something needed to be done.

The authority took out a $360,000 loan from First Union to buy the property and hired the Alliance for Affordable Housing, a Tampa-based non-profit company, to renovate the complex and turn it into condominiums for low-income families.

It would be the authority's first venture into home ownership and the first home-building enterprise for the alliance in Pinellas County.

Construction began January 1996.

The interior and exterior of each apartment has been painted. Some apartments were gutted. The kitchens have been redone. The driveways were repaved, and massive landscaping has been done.

Nineteen months after its completion, the property, now called Willowbrook Condominiums, has become a source of pride to the authority, the alliance and to the 20 homeowners who live there.

"It's something we believed in," said Jacqueline Rivera, executive director of the authority. "It's something we felt we needed to do."

It was also a well-kept secret.

"We didn't want to do a lot of talk about it while it was still in construction," said Walter Walker Jr., community reinvestment and assistance coordinator for the alliance. "But now it is completed and most of the condos are filled, we feel it is time to talk about it. We're proud of what we're doing and we're glad to take part in this."

The alliance did the rehabilitation work and manages the property for a fee of about 6 percent of each condo sold, Walker said.

The alliance has been in existence for more than five years, working with the Hillsborough County Housing Authority primarily to build subdivisions for low-income single families.

Walker said the first challenge was to find occupants. The condos were priced at $32,000, but many potential homeowners did not have the adequate credit rating to attain a loan.

Walker soon discovered another problem: the neighborhood's reputation as a transient community where crime was on the rise.

"We were a little bit concerned about that," Walker said. "We had to look at whether we could sell effectively in here."

The alliance went to the northern and southern edges of the county to attract potential buyers. They eventually drew most of their clients from the Greenwood area by advertising in community newspapers, handing out fliers and discussing the opportunity with neighborhood groups.

The original intent was to draw single mothers to live in the condos. The alliance has succeeded in that objective, but the makeup of the complex is slowly changing to include seniors, couples and children, Walker said.

Ollie Young was living in Greenwood Apartments when she drove past Willowbrook one day and saw the "For Sale" sign.

"I wanted a place of my own. I wanted something affordable, and I'm not a yard person, and I didn't want to worry about that," said Young, 59, an assembly worker for Baxter Healthcare in Largo.

Young, who had once owned a home, has been living in Willowbrook for a year and said the opportunity to become a property owner again is the main reason she applied.

"It's mine. It's comfortable. One day I'm going to own it and I can do what I want to do with it," she said.

Each condo has a 30-year mortgage. Many of the units also have a $10,000 second mortgage which kicks in after five years and runs for 10 years. The second mortgage is a preventative measure to keep residents from selling their condo for a huge profit. That second mortgage is forgiven if the resident stays for that 10-year period. If the resident sells the property, he or she must pay back that loan.

Once all the condos are sold, Walker said residents will form an association to manage the property themselves.

Other complexes in the area have changed their management and crime has dropped, residents and police say.

"We keep the riffraff out," Young said. "If you have a rental property you can't do that."

Organizers hope the project will inspire residents to consider buying a home.

"The objective is to give people some equity," Walker said. "To give people who wouldn't have a chance of ever owning property to have a chance at ownership."

Rivera said the authority has no plans to conduct a similar project at another property.

Walker said the program has succeeded in expanding the mindset of some owners who have bought new furniture other items.

"They realize they have something nice and decide they want other nice things. We see people doing things to try to improve their position."