The goal of the federally funded Hope VI program is to move public housing residents to better conditions. But some families have run into problems relocating, and some officials worry about a setback for the USF area.
The rush of cool air just inside her front door was still new enough to make Katina Johnson smile.
Not that long ago, the 26-year-old single mother and her two sons were living without air conditioning in College Hill, a dilapidated public housing complex in Tampa.
Thanks to a massive federal undertaking called Hope VI, Johnson and her family now live near the University of South Florida in a two-bedroom apartment with central heat and air, a washer and dryer and a fenced-in yard where her children play.
"You don't have to sit there and watch the walls sweat," said Johnson, relaxing on her front porch at E 137th Avenue and N 19th Street.
Thousands of residents of College Hill and nearby Ponce De Leon are being relocated as part of Hope VI, a $32.5-million program funded by the federal government and run by the Tampa Housing Authority. Both of those complexes will be demolished and the government will replace them with mixed-income housing of varying styles.
Tampa housing officials say 1,300 families will be relocated. Most will choose to do so with rental vouchers under a federal subsidy program known as Section 8. Demolition for the complexes is planned for early next year.
Many who move are finding a vast improvement over the mildewed walls and crowded conditions of their former homes.
But some are also encountering difficulty as they search for rental housing that will accept their Section 8 vouchers. And, while housing authority officials say they are offering a vast array of referral services to ease these transitions, renters interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times said they were unaware of those services.
Here in the USF area, where community leaders have long struggled to overcome a reputation for blight and provide a better life for low-income residents, some worry that Hope VI will bring about a setback.
"People are coming with housing vouchers, but their health and human services are not coming with them," said state Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, who is among the loudest in voicing these protests.
While Section 8 renters technically can go anywhere, the USF area offers one of the largest concentrations of landlords who participate in the program. That fact, Crist said, ensures that Hope VI residents will flock to the area at a time when health care and other services can barely accommodate the existing population.
"Our numbers never included this kind of mass exodus from the city," Crist said. "The community is going to come up short."
No one is told where to move
Housing officials say displaced residents are moving to all parts of the city and county and are not being steered to any one area.
But they acknowledge that many families will wind up in the USF area for lack of an alternative.
"We can't tell people where to move," said the housing authority's executive director, Jerome Ryans. As for the USF area's problems of low income and crime, Ryans said, "I can't address a historical problem."
Ryans said all displaced residents can choose to receive a moving allowance or have the housing authority hire a moving company for them. They are also told of support services available to them through the Urban League of Tampa and Hillsborough County during their exit interview, he said.
Yet several renters interviewed by the Times were not aware of their options for help, and instead continue to rely on the services provided by their old neighborhood, no matter the inconvenience.
"It takes me all day. I have to catch two buses," 20-year-old LaShunda Williams said about seeing her doctor, whose office is near her old complex, Ponce De Leon.
Williams, who is two months pregnant, moved with her 2-year-old daughter, Destiny, to her new apartment on E 142nd Ave in June. When interviewed late last month, she said she had not yet scoped out her new neighborhood for doctors or other services. Nor was she aware she could call the Urban League for help.
A $400 Section 8 voucher pays the rent on her four-room apartment, where she shares a bedroom with her daughter. She is unemployed, she said, and her mother pays the rest of her bills.
Her new neighborhood is quieter, and although someone broke into a neighbor's home recently, she's not worried about crime.
Of Hope VI, Williams said, "It's about time they're trying to do something."
Her neighbor, 20-year-old Shacoyia Saffore, also recently moved into the same complex from College Hill.
Like Williams, Saffore has a young daughter, and feels safer about their new home.
"I can let my baby come out here and play and don't have to worry about anybody running from police knocking her down."
Saffore said it took her two months to find her new apartment, which she found by searching the Yellow Pages just four days short of her deadline.
Saffore said she tried to use a Section 8 housing list that the housing authority provided, but it wasn't accurate. "A lot of the places had stopped taking Section 8," she said.
Hope VI coordinator Ben Stevenson said housing authority officials have done everything they can to make sure residents know about the assistance offered by the Urban League. They've posted fliers and mentioned the service both at public meetings and in individual conversations.
"We've done our part to get to get the word out there," Stevenson said, "but no matter what we do, some will say they didn't know."
As for the Section 8 list, Stevenson said, "We update it on a weekly basis. Initially there may have been a problem, but I think we worked it out."
Residents who are unable to find Section 8 housing within 60 days can ask for and receive an extension of up to another 60 days, Stevenson said. If they cannot find a new home within 120 days, their Section 8 voucher expires and they are moved elsewhere in the public housing system, he said.
Fears of a "transient nature'
Saffore also said she does not remember being told by Hope VI of any supportive services. She continues to head to her old neighborhood to collect food stamps.
"I could go close, but I ain't," she said. "I know those people over there."
Crist, who is also president of the USF Civic Association, takes little comfort in hearing that these Section 8 renters are going outside the neighborhood for services such as medical care.
"In bad weather, in the heat or the rain, people don't want to go across town to see a doctor," he said. "Consequently, they don't get the health care they need."
Also, Crist said, "You lose your sense of community. You still maintain your transient nature, which we're trying to get away from."
The concerns of Crist and others have been heard by county officials such as Kevin McConnell, head of the county's department of community improvement. McConnell said current USF area residents have told him they are worried about their neighborhoods because of Hope VI.
"Section 8 has a stigma of unemployed people, and the usual crime and dope situation," he said. "But if we have problems like that with a Section 8 renter, they are kicked out of the program."
Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Al Perotti Jr., who heads the District I office on N 20 Street, said crime appears to be on the increase countywide _ which deputies generally attribute to school being out for the summer _ and not just for the USF area.
But he has not yet noticed any long-term problems; nor has he asked for additional deputies for his patrols.
Johnson, the young mother, doesn't see a problem either; for her, the USF area is a far nicer place for her and her children. Back in College Hill, she said, "I barely let mine out the door. Now, other kids can stay over."