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Fewer making public housing their home

A rigid federal rule and the popularity of alternatives such as the Section 8 program may be behind the vacancies in public housing complexes.

For rent: Dozens of affordable apartments throughout Pinellas County close to schools, bus lines and shopping centers.

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Times are changing in the world of public housing. Qualified, low-income families are rejecting offers for cheap apartments in the authority's complexes throughout the county.

This week, 40 percent, or 255 units, of the authority's 631 available apartments are empty. Housing authority executive director Helen Piloneo says she doubts her staff can fill the vacancies by the end of the year.

Board members say they are concerned.

"There must be people out there" who need a place to live, said board chairman Herb James. "If we can find them."

A number of roadblocks are hindering workers from filling the apartments, said Piloneo.

One is a new rule imposed by the federal government leaving little room to negotiate with clients who want to choose the city in which they live.

"We are allowed to make just one offer, the apartment that has been vacant the longest," said Angel Tua, assistant executive director for housing assistance. "If that apartment is in Largo and they want to live in St. Petersburg, we can't accommodate them" unless the prospective client's reason is related to school, work or a medical condition.

More than 100 applicants, approved for housing after rigid screening and background checks, have declined offers from the authority since January, when sanctions preventing it from leasing vacant units were lifted.

+ A St. Petersburg woman turned down a two-bedroom apartment in Rainbow Village near Largo in May because the apartment was "too far from the Christian school and the after-school-care center my daughter attends."

+ A Clearwater woman also declined an offer to live in Rainbow Village. On her application, the woman said she had been threatened by a current tenant when she visited Rainbow Village recently.

+ A St. Petersburg woman turned down an offer at Rainbow Village because her baby has serious health problems and is being treated by a St. Petersburg pediatrician.

Because the woman rejected the housing offer for health reasons, the authority was allowed to make an additional offer of an apartment in Pinellas Park. That offer was accepted.

Rainbow Village has proved to be an especially difficult complex to fill. In March, there were 69 vacant units. This week, there are 81.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has mandated that Rainbow Village be integrated. The majority of the tenants there are African-American. But apartments offered to whites and Hispanics have been rejected routinely, Tua said.

"The "one offer' rule may be part of the problem, but it's not the whole problem," said board member Isay Gulley.

"In many ways, the complexes are not equal. I am especially concerned about Rainbow Village. It doesn't have the curb appeal or the amenities some of the others have," Gulley said. "It was neglected for years."

Darlene Kalada, in charge of community development for the county, said the trend today in public housing is away from large complexes and toward Section 8, a program that allows clients to choose a rental apartment, house or duplex from those available in the private market.

The rental unit must be approved by HUD. Tenants pay about 30 percent of their income in rent. The housing authority reimburses the landlord for the remainder of the rent.

Tenants prefer such an arrangement because the stigma of living in a "project" is gone, Kalada said.

Piloneo said 179 former public housing tenants have switched to Section 8 housing in recent months. The authority's waiting list for Section 8 has 1,500 names, she said, and is temporarily closed until those on the list can be accommodated.

"Our Section 8's success has hurt our public housing program," Piloneo said.

Kalada said the desire for Section 8 housing may be part of the reason potential clients are backing away from the authority's vacant apartments. "But the main reason is the "one offer' rule," she said. "People want choices."