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Dunedin affordable housing project touts energy efficiency

EcoVillage Dunedin is an affordable housing project touted for its energy efficiency. Although about 10 units have been occupied for a year, the developers are aiming to sell the rest by the end of April. Within its five buildings, the project contains 25 townhomes ranging from 1,100 to 1,400 square feet and priced from $180,000 to $200,000. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
EcoVillage Dunedin is an affordable housing project touted for its energy efficiency. Although about 10 units have been occupied for a year, the developers are aiming to sell the rest by the end of April. Within its five buildings, the project contains 25 townhomes ranging from 1,100 to 1,400 square feet and priced from $180,000 to $200,000. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Mar. 14, 2018

DUNEDIN — Mary Robinson walked her dog, Toby, stopping to study the new townhomes dotting Lorraine LeLand Street.

"I have a dream to settle near my family some day,'' she said. "I really like how close to the (Pinellas) Trail these are, much closer than where we live now near Patricia (Avenue). And it's new, it's modern.''

Robinson, 36, is a single legal assistant who has rented an apartment in the Dunedin area for years. She was referring to EcoVillage Dunedin, an affordable housing project touted for its energy efficiency. It sits on a 2.95-acre site on the northeast and southeast corners of Douglas Avenue and Lorraine Leland, next to the Dunedin City Wastewater facility.

Although about 10 units have been occupied for a year, the developers are aiming to sell the rest by the end of April. Within its five buildings, the project contains 25 townhomes ranging from 1,100 to 1,400 square feet and priced from $180,000 to $200,000.

EcoVillage Dunedin is located on the former site of Highlander Village, a public housing complex closed in 2002. It's a joint effort between Pinellas County, the city of Dunedin and the Dunedin Housing Authority. After Highlander Village was demolished, Pinellas County, the landowner, offered up the property while maintaining a 99-year lease.

In 2011, city and county leaders gave approval for EcoVillage Dunedin. Each home comes equipped with solar power, hybrid water heaters and eco-friendly installation. Chuck Burkett, the project manager and spokesman for the development, said that although he has had a hand in developing similar projects, including EcoVillage Madeira Beach, this is the first time he has combined an affordable housing project with solar power.

"Typically, solar power goes into million-dollar homes,'' he said.

One key to the project is that buyers don't have to pay for land costs, which lowers the cost of the units by $60,000 to $100,000, Burkett said.

As an affordable housing project, EcoVillage Dunedin follows a tiered system based on the median household income for Pinellas County, which in 2016 was $47,090.

Five of the townhomes are being sold to buyers earning less than 80 percent of the average median income, 15 are going to buyers earning less than 120 percent of that amount, and five can be sold to buyers regardless of their income.

Mark Ligda, a military veteran from Indiana, lives in one of the first townhomes built at EcoVillage Dunedin. He first heard about the project when he was visiting family in the area and got interested because of the solar energy feature and the downtown location.

Generally speaking, he said, he likes living at EcoVillage, and is an advocate for solar power. But he contends the developers "oversell'' to potential home buyers.

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"When you look at it overall, the solar panels add thousands of dollars to your mortgage, and none of us — none of my neighbors — will ever use the energy it would take to see a return on the investment. But I do like the solar,'' he said.

"The thing that I tell people who walk through here considering buying one is that, if you go into it understanding you are buying a basic house, you are okay. But if you go into it thinking you are getting the deal of the century and everyone else missed it, you'll be sorely disappointed.''

Burkett said he did not expect the project to take seven years, but cited the Great Recession coupled with the burst of Tampa Bay's real estate bubble as major factors. "Seven years ago, we as the developer got our proposal approved and then we landed in a tough time for real estate. But we were able to get back on track. Things got good again, thank goodness,'' he said.

Anthony Jones of Bright Community Trust, formerly the Pinellas Community Housing Foundation, administers the project's land lease for the county. He hopes more developers will be interested in creating similar projects in Pinellas County.

"It's getting harder for regular working people to be able to become a homeowner, or even a renter. We really need our core workers to be in our communities, but they are pushed further and further away because of costs for housing,'' he said.

"And if you talk to economic development people, there are companies who will not locate here because their employers can not buy a home. So that's another point. More housing is good for everyone — housing creates jobs.''

As she continued towards the Pinellas Trail with her dog, Robinson admitted that even though she would like to be a home owner, right now even affordable housing is "...out of her reach,'' she said. "$200,000 would be a lot for me, and I would not want one with a view of the water plant.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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