CLEARWATER — For the past 50 years, Prospect Towers has been affordable senior living downtown, home to the elderly on fixed incomes and many dependent on housing vouchers.
After the nonprofit that originally developed the 208 apartments sold the building in 2015, Prospect Towers has been bought and sold twice, each time inching toward change. Each sale was by private investors who made some improvements, raised rents and flipped the property for profit — but those owners kept the building limited to seniors at and below market rates.
Now the investment group that bought the building in May for $16 million is poised to transform Prospect Towers from affordable senior housing to market rate apartments. Covenant Capital Group of Nashville has eliminated age limits, and after renovations, could eventually increase rents as much as 20 percent, according to Clearwater economic development and housing assistant director Chuck Lane.
“The fact of the matter is many of them aren’t going to be able to afford to keep living there,” Lane said. “We have such a need for affordable housing and its not just us, it’s really nationwide.”
Covenant Capital Group co-founder Govan White said his firm does not intend to drastically change its rent structure on current residents all at once. Tenants with leases up for renewal this year will see a $50 increase, new rates of $950 for a 530-square foot one-bedroom and about $900 for the 336-square foot studio units.
But White declined to confirm how much current rents will ultimately be raised or confirm the rate for incoming tenants in renovated units. He also declined to confirm how much longer the owners will continue to accept housing vouchers.
“There’s some people that do this and their strategy is to immediately empty the building, but that’s not what we’re doing here,” White said. “We’re trying to be sensitive and not create a lot of challenging situations. We want to help people.”
Currently, 22 residents pay most of their rent with vouchers from Clearwater Housing Authority, and 52 who receive a subsidy from Senior Citizen Services that is set to expire Oct. 31. Another 20 units are under a land use restriction with the city that ensures they remain affordable through 2042. About 22 units are currently vacant, White said.
Another roughly 100 low-income residents pay rent out of pocket and must accommodate the increase or find a new place to live.
Roderick Roberson and his wife, Mary Ann, split the $910 rent for their one-bedroom apartment using their social security checks. But after rent is paid, the couple has little to spare for groceries and necessities each month. They save money by doing without cable and phones.
Any rent increase, Roberson said, will leave him with few options.
“If something major comes up, we’re messed up because we don’t have a little nest egg,” said Roberson, 59, a former chef. “Anything more would hurt us real bad.”
White said his firm is planning to spend $3 million to modernize the outdated building by installing energy efficient appliances and toilets to cut water consumption by 30 percent, painting the interior and exterior, and renovating units with new countertops and fixtures.
He plans to continue working with local housing authorities to find new housing for seniors who are priced out. He said about half of the 52 residents receiving the Senior Citizens Services subsidy that will expire Oct. 31 have found new housing.
“This transition has been going on for five years; this didn’t just happen with us showing up,” White said. “We’re hoping to preserve and protect this building and make it more energy efficient going forward and continue with the transition in a sensitive way.”
But affordable alternatives are scarce.
The Clearwater Housing Authority has 137 seniors on a waiting list for voucher housing and 300 waiting for family units, according to CEO Jacqueline Rivera.
With low turnover on units, Rivera said it can take years for these residents to make it through the waiting list.
As statewide unemployment claims skyrocket amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly doubling in one week to 129,408 on Thursday, Rivera expects the demand for affordable housing to only increase.
“All bets are off with the pandemic causing more hardship on the systems already in place that were already taxed,” Rivera said.
Residents at Prospect Towers used to gather for bingo, karaoke and potlucks, but now the common areas are disbanded amid coronavirus precautions.
The uncertainty brought by impending changes under new ownership has added to the stress, said four-year resident Arlene Hill.
Hill, 64, knows changes are coming, but the new owners have not told her how much longer they will accept her housing voucher. And with social security her only income, she could not pay rent without it.
“People are worried, they are upset,” said Hill, a former teacher. “We don’t know anything. My lease is up soon and then I’ll be finding out.”