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Developer partners with Habitat

Grady Pridgen and Pinellas Habitat for Humanity agreed this week to join forces in what they describe as a long-term initiative to dramatically increase the pace of affordable residential construction in the county.

"We're committing to producing each year the (total) amount they've produced in the last 20 years," Pridgen said Thursday.

Habitat has built about 130 homes since the county chapter began in 1985.

This year, Habitat's goal is to dedicate 17 homes, four more than in 2005, said Michael D. Brecheen, the group's land acquisition and faith community relations specialist.

As affordable housing has become an increasingly rare commodity, the group has been intent on finding ways to ramp up their activities, said Brecheen.

"It's reached crisis proportions here in Pinellas," he said. "I am really excited about this. . . . The biggest developer in the county has just agreed to partner with us."

Brecheen said he and Pridgen first discussed the prospect of partnering last month at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, a pledge that was finalized at Pridgen's office Tuesday.

Both said the particular terms still need to be worked out - including the scope and timing of what they called a "multipronged" approach.

"Grady owns a lot of land already, he will give us land. This is what I've trying to get the city and counties to do," he said. "He wants to bring us into several of his projects - and give us some of the units to build as truly affordable units"

Cities have been willing to donate or sell Habitat land to a varying degree, but often the deals come with strings attached. And while Habitat sells houses for less than they cost, requirements such as garages and porches run up costs, Brecheen said. Rising property values have also made it tougher to convince municipalities to accept terms the group can afford. The Tarpon Springs City Commission agreed to sell three lots for $15,000 each on Tuesday night in lieu of bids four times higher from a private developer.

Brecheen believes the relationship with Pridgen promises to bolster the group's piece-mail acquisition effort - and Pridgen's reputation. "He can be a leader among his peers of for-profit developers," he said.

Given the controversy surrounding Pridgen this week, skeptics are likely to view the launch of Pridgen's affordable housing initiative as a political strategy or public relations ploy.

But Pridgen said his interest in the issue has been practical and longstanding.

"Our main business for the past 20 years has been to move businesses to the area," he said. "I've relocated about 1,000 business to the county.

About eight years ago, companies began raising concerns about the lack of housing for workers, and recent developments have only intensified the clamor, he said.

Pridgen does not deny he wants to increase densities, but said the mission of Habitat partnership is "to create affordable workforce housing near employment centers in the region. We plan on being the leader on affordable workforce housing regardless of any plans there may for future regulation"

The housing problem in Pinellas County is not going to be solved to be "a one house at a time," he said.

It is a sentiment particularly appreciated by Brecheen.

"In helping to solve the problem of truly affordable housing, he'll be a hero," said Brecheen, "He's already one of mine."

The new initiative may have won Pridgen the regard of one of the nation's most respected nonprofits, but it remains to be seen whether it will quiet the public opposition and official outcry about his large-scale projects.