At a time when affordable housing is desperately needed, Pinellas County has more than $700,000 riding on an affordable housing project that is almost a year behind schedule and might never get built.
Last fall, the county bought the site of what had been a decrepit mobile home park in Lealman, an unincorporated area just outside the St. Petersburg city limits. The seller, a newly formed company, leased back the land from the county and said it would put up 34 manufactured homes with affordable rents.
But the triangular-shaped 1.55 acre site is so small that plans currently call for zero lot lines, no sidewalks or paved parking and only scant landscaping. Area residents and other critics oppose the project and say it would do little or nothing to upgrade Lealman, one of the county’s poorest communities.
"If the goal is long-term revitalization so (Lealman) reflects the rest of Pinellas County and has a good quality of life, taking an old mobile home park and simply putting in new ones is not a sound choice,'' said Teresa Van Alstine, an affordable housing advocate.
Van Alstine was among those who appeared via Zoom at a recent meeting of the county’s Development Review Committee, made up of county staffers. They have recommended approval of the project subject to several conditions. The matter now goes before the county’s Board of Adjustment, which meets Wednesday.
Oasis Acres, as the project is called, has been controversial from the start.
Contemporary Housing Alternatives, which has 14 affordable housing communities in Pinellas, paid $300,000 early last year for what had been the drug- and crime-riddled Wood Acres mobile home park at 3901 46th Avenue N. Two months later, the company deeded the property to an affiliate, Oasis Acres LLC, which in turn sold it to the county for $720,000.
Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke temporarily withheld payment, noting the apparent "windfall'' profit Oasis Acres LLC stood to make and questioning the relationship between one of its principals, Jacob Stowers, and a top county official — Stowers' father, then an assistant county administrator.
Both denied any conflict of interest, and the elder Stowers said he had "stayed out of the loop'' during discussions between the company and the county. The company also said the sale price was justified because it had spent a large sum removing the old asbestos-filled trailers and helping to relocate the tenants.
Although it had a demolition permit for the trailers, Oasis Acres LLC did not get the required permits before it began putting in underground utilities. Plans to have the first manufactured homes in place by last December collapsed when the company was told it had to go through the county review process before work could resume.
The proposal now calls for 32 one- and two-bedroom manufactured homes. The company wants to reduce the parking to one space per unit — instead of 1.5 spaces — and use crushed rock, grass or another alternative to paving.
Oasis Acres LLC also wants to be freed from putting in a sidewalk along busy 46th Avenue N and landscaping the site. It has said it would reuse existing landscaping although it already has cleared most of the trees and foliage.
The younger Stowers told the review committee that prospective tenants would be made aware of the limited parking and other factors. Rents would range from $700 to $750.
"This is a newer type of community (for) people who want to live minimally,'' he said. “We don’t foresee a family of four beating down the doors to get in. This is for a young couple, somebody who works in downtown St. Pete and can’t afford the rents there. We are going to be very transparent, they’ll see what they are getting when they sign up.”
County staffers have recommended that the company add five parking spaces, install bike racks, "stabilize'' the parking areas and put in a sidewalk along 46th Avenue N or provide a crosswalk connected to the existing sidewalk on the south side of the street. Additionally, it should replace all trees that were removed without permitting and landscape the perimeter of the property for "screening purposes.''
Stowers did not return three calls seeking comment on the recommendations, nor was a call to the company office returned.
Current residents say Lealman, which has been designated a Community Redevelopment Area, needs better quality affordable housing, not mobile homes strapped down on blocks.
"I’ve seen this area start to improve … and I’d be very disappointed if this project moves forward,'' said Jeremy Heath.
Pinellas County codes allow for the redevelopment of outdated mobile home parks up to the same density for which they were formerly approved. Blake Lyon, the county’s director of building and development review services, acknowledged in an interview, however, that mobile homes "are not as popular a building form as once was.'' He could not think of a similar new project being approved in an unincorporated area of Pinellas.
Depending on the outcome of the Board of Adjustment’s meeting, the company could comply with the recommendations or appeal in circuit court, or the county could try to cancel the contract and go with a different developer.
David Lee said he and other Lealman residents think the site could be better used for affordable apartments or a neighborhood park. He’s not surprised that the current proposal has foundered.
"This is what happens when projects are not put out to bid and the developer fails to complete due diligence,'' he said . "The community loses.''