CLEARWATER — After three months of work, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County volunteers were finished constructing the home nestled along the Pinellas Trail. Cabinets and appliances were installed and ready. The outside was painted with coats of bright Sea Frolic blue.
But one day before it would be dedicated to new owners Ciara and James Walker and their two children, the house still needed finishing touches.
The final volunteer crew on Friday clearing rocks, raking soil and laying sod was made up of about a dozen mayors from across the region and staff of the Florida League of Mayors, as they used their first community service project of 2019 to highlight the need for affordable housing in the state.
"As the League of Mayors, we're concerned about it," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said as he pushed squares of sod down in the front of the home Friday morning, the sun beating down on the crew without a cloud in the sky."Everybody dreams of owning a home."
Since 2001, the Florida Legislature has diverted $2.2 billion out of two trust funds intended to subsidize affordable housing construction and assist low-income people with rent and down payment costs. In the 2018-19 budget alone, lawmakers raided $182 million of the $322 million affordable housing funds for other uses, including for school safety initiatives following the Parkland shooting.
But Gov. Ron Desantis' 2019-20 budget unveiled Feb. 1 proposes fully funding Workforce and Affordable Housing Programs for the first time in more than a decade, dedicating $338 million two its two main programs.
Cretekos said he's encouraged by the change. But the need for affordable housing remains one of the group's top legislative priorities, leading the mayors to slip on gardening gloves and sneakers before a Florida League of Mayors meeting on the topic Friday afternoon.
"If I'm going to say I want the citizens that live in our community to be a part of helping others, I need to step up to the plate and walk the walk too," Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Cookie Kennedy said as she lifted sod from a pile.
The Walkers' home in the North Greenwood neighborhood is the 514th home Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County has built since 1985, according to CEO Mike Sutton. The emergence of affordable housing has played a role in the revitalization efforts in the area just north of downtown.
Within walking distance from the Walkers' three-bedroom home along the Pinellas Trail are two other affordable housing projects. Just south are 76 Garden Trail Apartments on Seminole Street completed in 2017 as a partnership between Pinellas County, the City of Clearwater and the state. And one block north off N Garden Avenue are 12 homes Habitat for Humanity constructed in 2017 with land donated by the city.
Before the city acquired the property where the Walkers' home now sits and donated it to Habitat for new construction, it was a known drug house for years, Sutton said.
"There is this synergy that's come through in this area," Sutton said.
Ciara Walker, who was at her job as a special education associate at Oak Grove Middle School while the mayors worked, said the Habitat program has been a way to transition out of a mold-infested apartment and into a home she owns and worked for. The Habitat program provides no-interest loans to qualified candidates and uses their mortgage payments to build more affordable housing in the community.
Besides learning about home ownership, candidates are required to complete 450 sweat equity hours. Walker said the work helped her understand how to maintain a home of her own. And Habitat even accepted five hours of equity from her children — Ariana, 11, and Andrew, 8 — when they made the honor roll, she said.
"It's such a blessing," Walker said. "Me and my husband were measuring and cutting out the walls and putting it together with other volunteers, so it was a whole experience."
Hawthorne Mayor Matthew Surrency, president of the League of Mayors, said advocating for affordable housing and home rule will be priorities this year for the organization.
He said mayors are natural advocates for such community causes. Their service project on Friday, he said, showed just that.
"We are the representatives that are closest to the people," Surrency said. "We see them at home, at the grocery store. Most of our politicians in Tallahassee and Washington don't have the ability to be as close as we are. Laying sod today, this is emblematic of what we do on a regular basis."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.