TAMPA — Southtown Park is a quiet, gated community across the street from an industrial packaging facility and a low-income apartment complex. The cookie-cutter houses and duplexes in Southtown, valued between $200,000 and $400,000, have freshly cut lawns and well-manicured gardens.
It's a sharp contrast to the larger area, which has for decades been a community of blue-collar workers living in modest old homes, now dotted with foreclosures and deteriorating properties.
Working on his yard one sticky Sunday afternoon, Sgt. 1st Class Joey Medeiros said he and his wife were lucky to have found their $200,000 three-bedroom townhouse for sale early this year.
"All these were spoken for and something happened with the folks who were going to buy this one. We squeezed in pretty well," he said.
With an infant daughter at home, the 35-year-old Army counterintelligence agent can be home within minutes if need be.
Not all of his colleagues can say the same.
Medeiros and a growing number of personnel from MacDill Air Force Base are filling up hundreds of new homes and condos in the area south of Gandy Boulevard, directly around the base. Historically an unpopular area for military families, it is experiencing tremendous interest from developers and investors eager to fill the need for thousands of people like Medeiros who are willing to pay higher housing costs to skip the long commute from areas like Brandon, Carrollwood and Riverview.
"Location was the big thing," Medeiros said, adding that he had long drives to work in his previous deployments and was eager to work closer to home. "I know you can get more for your money there, but it depends on if you want to deal with the drive."
Yet as the wave of new construction attracts more middle- and upper-class families and housing costs rise, lower-ranked airmen will likely be priced out of the area.
"Based on the (housing allowance), it's out of their range," Medeiros said.
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Southtown Park was an early project for the most prominent residential developer in the area, Domain Homes. The company has built about 200 houses south of Gandy in the past four years.
Sharon McSwain, Domain's owner and president, said the land for Southtown was set for development in the early 2000s. After the market crash, it was left in control of Florida Capital Bank, which shared the risk when Domain Homes began construction.
"There was not a lot of supply of new housing at the time. While the rest of the market was still being impacted by the crash, there was an awful lot of business still coming from MacDill," McSwain said.
When the Southtown homes went up for sale, she said, the buyers were "almost exclusively military."
In 2010, the company started building new homes around the base, an area with large lots and small houses.
Today, developers like Domain Homes are buying small single-family homes built in the 1950s for less than $100,000, replacing them with 2,000-square-foot houses and selling them for more than $350,000.
While the neighborhood is still mostly older homes, Alan Steenson, president of the Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association, said he expects that won't last.
"As soon as they finish the house, they're selling them," he said. "Seven years ago, if somebody would have told me there were properties on West Shore for over $1 million, I would have asked what kind of drugs they were on."
Steenson added that he anticipates "consistent growth" in the area in the next 20 years.
The growth is already reflected in the rising cost of rent, especially on West Shore Boulevard, where one-bedroom apartments could be found for $800 per month — affordable only for the lower military housing allowance levels.
New construction at complexes like Jefferson Westshore, Casa Bella and Camden Preserve, which have sprung up on the site of an old tile factory and next to run-down row houses, are going for $1,000 to $1,200 per month.
"Airmen and people like that, I just don't know if they're able to afford Jefferson Westshore, at least not within their military housing allowance. … As prices go up, they'll be looking elsewhere," Steenson said.
A homeowner who has lived in the area for 20 years, Aldo Oliver, 55, has seen the changes firsthand. He said there is plenty of room to accommodate the demand for new construction without displacing the current residents too much.
Oliver said he expects a shift in the way MacDill personnel look at the area.
"When I was in Baltimore, everyone wanted to live in the country. They rebuilt the city and a lot of people wanted to live in the city again. I feel like it will be the same thing here," Oliver said.
Enrique Acedo, a property owner and financial analyst, has picked up on the trend, as well. Like many others, he is seeing financial promise in the neighborhood.
Having lived in Tampa for four years, he bought a new townhouse earlier this year in Schooner Cove, a large gated community off Interbay Boulevard that he estimates has "at the very least" a 50 percent military population.
"Bang for your buck, this place was by far the best," he said. For less than $200,000, he bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit.
The 27-year-old said that being less than a mile from the base was a big factor, as "it's almost guaranteed" to bring in about $1,600 per month in rent with trustworthy tenants.
"If you're a homeowner like me and you want to rent out to somebody, you know typically they (military personnel) are pretty good renters. They won't destroy property. They have good discipline. If you're looking for investment property, it's not a bad place to buy. You're guaranteed demand and can charge a decently high rate," he said.
Acedo said that after his market research, it was clear that the area is seeing a lot of attention from developers, and he expects property values to appreciate quickly.
"This area is undervalued right now," he said. "People have to move somewhere. You're right next to the Crosstown, close to Dale Mabry, close to St. Pete, next to Gandy, so you can get onto (Interstate) 275 pretty quickly if you need to. Transportationwise, it's a very central location."
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The military does not track where its roughly 15,000 servicemen and servicewomen live. Housing at MacDill consists of 572 family units, which maintain 97 percent occupancy or higher, MacDill officials said. The remainder live off base.
Military personnel are paid a monthly housing stipend meant to cover the rent and utilities based on their rank and whether they have dependents. In the Tampa area, the allowance this year ranges from $1,194 to about $2,600, according to the Department of Defense's website. The rates are adjusted every year, based on an annual study of market rates in thousands of cities and towns where active-duty service members live.
Despite the allowance guaranteeing them appropriate housing in the area, the majority of MacDill personnel have historically moved to Brandon and other areas farther from the base, where for $200,000 they could find a newer single-family home rather than a condo or townhouse in South Tampa.
"It's got a history that this is not a desirable place to live," said Michael Eyre, a defense contractor who works at the base.
Dressed in a white and blue pinstriped suit, Eyre stopped by the Buckets Grill restaurant on S Dale Mabry Highway on a recent afternoon, where photos of him and other veteran patrons hang on the walls next to flags from each branch. Servicemen sit at the bar, watching ESPN and enjoying a pint.
The retired Army colonel and his family lived in Brandon for more than five years, he said, because the schools were better and it was a well-established area for military families. At the time, those factors justified the long commute.
With his kids out of the house, he moved into a duplex less than 2 miles north of the base last year.
"I was surprised at how different the neighborhood is now," he said. "I just don't think it gets the attention it needs or probably deserves."
Beth Hibben, a residential real estate agent and a volunteer with MacDill's housing office, agreed that a major factor working against the area is the quality of schools.
However, that is becoming less of an issue. West Shore Elementary, just a few blocks from the base, jumped from a C–rated school in 2013 to an A this past academic year, according to the Florida Department of Education. Monroe Middle School rose from a C to a B rating as Robinson High School, Ballast Point Elementary and Anderson Elementary have maintained A ratings. There are still improvements to be made, though, as Lanier Elementary, Madison Middle School and Chiaramonte Elementary are at a C level.
Hillsborough County is the eighth-largest school district in the country, which spokeswoman Terrie Dodson said makes the transition more difficult for military families deciding where to settle down. In addition to traditional schools, parents have the option to send their kids to magnet and charter schools within the district, she said.
Other areas of the neighborhood are also looking up as new retail businesses and restaurants have filled in vacant properties left from the recession. The corner of Gandy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway that once was the home of two motels and a 7-Eleven has been filled in with a Chick-fil-A, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Verizon Wireless and other businesses. An Applebee's also arrived this summer.
McSwain, owner of the developer Domain Homes, is optimistic that more high-end housing opportunities will be a vehicle for further improvements in schools and local businesses, and subsequently create more buzz in the neighborhoods south of Gandy.
"I see us here for an indefinite period of time," she said.
Alli Knothe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.