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Community complex relocates many

With a new elementary school and career center, along with a planned health clinic and social services office, the ambitious community complex proposed for the blighted area between N. 22nd and Livingston Avenue is considered by many to be a potential boon to the troubled University neighborhood.

But to make room for the 29-acre project, existing buildings need to be cleared, which means many residents are being forced to find new housing.

In the past several months, about 100 families have moved out in what is amounting to a large-scale relocation, said Jill Lemons, property manager for the Hillsborough County school district. Once they are gone, construction and maintenance crews come in to board up empty units or knock them down.

Many of the people already have found new places on their own, she said. The school board, in conjunction with local Realtors and the University Area Community Development Corp., is helping others find rental units or homes to purchase.

"We're trying to work with the residents and work with the property managers," Lemons said.

To ease the burden, people have been given at least 60 days to leave, rent free. The thought was that this period would give them enough time to locate new housing while building up a large enough nest egg to make the necessary payments, such as security deposits or a down payment on a home.

During a community meeting Tuesday night at the University Area Community Center, Lemons affirmed that people would not be evicted.

Officials and community center staff also talked about a variety of assistance available for people interested in becoming first-time homebuyers. Toward the end of the meeting, Lemons and local real estate broker Willie Mason huddled with an area man about the possibility of purchasing a home already on the market.

But one resident, Barbara Stafford, complained about the district's effort.

Lemon later said Stafford rejected a two-bedroom unit she recently found for Stafford at nearby Cinnamon Cove Apartments. A mother of a 17-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, Stafford said the $500/month apartment was too small to accommodate two queen-size beds.

"I have been working with her three months, and that is the first thing she got for me," Stafford said Wednesday. "There are residents there day and night, and nobody's seen anybody go door to door."

Stafford, an administrative assistant for the state Attorney General's Office in Tampa, said the rent money she is saving during the two-month grace period will only go so far.

She currently pays $450/month at a complex she likes. Unlike some others, whose security deposits included first and last month's rent, Stafford had put up only $250. Taking into account moving expenses, she figures she needs about $1,500 to relocate to a new apartment.

"I have put out more than $300 now in application fees," she said. "Some of the places I could not afford."

The complex, which will abut the USF-area community center, is viewed as a centerpiece to the community's turnaround. The unnamed elementary school and the career center alone will cost an estimated $16-million. They are scheduled to open in 2003 and serve about 1,200 students.

Career center students will have the opportunity to work at the health clinic. "It's a wonderful project," Lemons said.

In the meantime, Lemons said she is trying to help those remaining families who need assistance. During visits to the area, she said she also tries to make sure the underbrush is kept mowed to discourage crime.

Stafford, who estimated 25 to 30 units in her complex are still occupied, does not feel as safe as before. "It's getting a little dangerous out there," she said. "I need to get out."