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Pinellas audit flags failed affordable housing project

The county promises reforms after residents, and the inspector general, raised concerns over a Lealman mobile home park.
An empty field located on 46th Avenue and 39th Street, was to be redeveloped into an affordable housing community to be called Oasis Acres.
An empty field located on 46th Avenue and 39th Street, was to be redeveloped into an affordable housing community to be called Oasis Acres. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 27
Updated Jul. 28

In January 2019, Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida bought a dilapidated mobile home park in Lealman for $300,000 with plans to rebuild the 36 units in partnership with local government.

The nonprofit sold it to Pinellas County 11 months later for $740,525 and then leased it back to begin work.

Two years later, without a single home built, the Oasis Acres project is officially dead. From the start, residents pushed back against a taxpayer-funded mobile home park they said was conceived behind closed doors with design standards that conflicted with Lealman’s revitalization goals.

Now a report by Pinellas County Inspector General Melissa Dondero has backed up concerns about how the project advanced in the first place. Among other issues, she raised concern about a potential conflict of interest between the developer and county staff that goes back decades and a lack of review by county staff on a project that emphasized profitability for the developer but lacked basic features like sidewalks.

“The inspector general’s report completely validates the concerns the community had,” community organizer David Lee said. “Standard operating procedures were trampled in order to make way for a project we all knew was incompatible with the goals of the community redevelopment area.”

A sign marking the partnership between Pinellas County and Contemporary Housing Alternatives for the now-defunct Oasis Acres mobile home redevelopment in Lealman.
A sign marking the partnership between Pinellas County and Contemporary Housing Alternatives for the now-defunct Oasis Acres mobile home redevelopment in Lealman. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

Developing the land

Until Contemporary Housing demolished the mobile home park on 46th Avenue N in 2019, the site had roughly 25 lots. A 1967 drawing on file of the 1.55-acre property depicted a layout for 36 units. As zoning and land use requirements changed over the years, new development on the site was restricted to 18 units.

In 2017, the county adopted a rule that allows for mobile home park redevelopments in a Community Redevelopment Area like Lealman to retain historical density as a way to incentivize developers to invest. The rule requires a site plan review.

In April 2019, Pinellas County staff certified the property’s density of 36 units and later awarded Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida with an affordable housing designation for the site. Staff did not require the developer to undergo a site plan review like the code requires “in an attempt to expedite the affordable housing project,” according to Dondero’s report finalized last week.

Dondero stated that the code was unclear, which resulted in miscommunication by staff. But a potential conflict of interest may have further complicated the situation, she said.

Contemporary Housing’s vice president is Jacob T. Stowers, son of Jacob F. Stowers III, who was working as assistant county administrator over the planning department while his staff was coordinating funding, incentives and permitting for Oasis Acres.

The elder Stowers first worked for Pinellas County from 1974 to 2006, when he retired as assistant county administrator. He then worked as chairman of Contemporary Housing from 2008 until 2014, when he returned to the $185,000-per-year job overseeing planning and development for unincorporated areas of Pinellas.

Stowers resigned in December 2019, after his staff advanced the Oasis Acres project. He did not respond to a voicemail or text message seeking comment about the inspector general’s report. The younger Stowers declined to comment.

Dondero also reported that Fred Marquis, the county administrator from 1979 to 2000, had a potential conflict of interest during his tenure. Marquis worked at Contemporary Housing Alternative from 1992 to 2018, overlapping his time with the county.

“During the time periods when Mr. Marquis held positions for (Contemporary Housing), he could have directed staff to make decisions that benefitted him personally,” Dondero wrote. “During the time period when Mr. Stowers directed county staff on affordable housing developments, his son was actively working on affordable housing developments with the county.”

In an interview, Marquis said he was asked to join Contemporary Housing’s board of directors because of his familiarity with affordable housing and never received any payment or benefit from his role.

“I have no idea how that could have occurred because it was a volunteer board with no pay or anything,” Marquis said.

In 2010, an internal Pinellas County audit showed that the vast majority of concessions for rental housing had gone to Contemporary Housing, which received excessive breaks and possible preferential treatment.

How the deal unfolded

By early 2020, Contemporary Housing had begun “clearing the site of all trees, internal roadways, and existing utilities without permits,” according to Dondero. Alerted by residents of the violation, the county gave the developer a stop-work order and later said the project would require review by the Development Review Committee and Board of Adjustment and Appeals.

The Board of Adjustment approved the proposal in November with conditions, like a requirement for the developer to add sidewalks, replace trees it had removed and undergo a full site plan review. Residents then sued, alleging the board approved illegal aspects, like too many mobile homes on the site, zero setbacks and insufficient parking.

After the Board of Adjustment’s requirement that Oasis Acres go through a formal site plan review, Contemporary Housing announced its plan to suspend the project. The Housing Finance Authority dissolved its lease with the developer in March.

The county is now preparing to put the property out to bid for another affordable housing project, according to Dondero. She clarified any future project would be restricted to 18 units to be compliant.

The county also bought a vacant lot on 43rd Street N in 2018 for $540,000 for Contemporary Housing to build a 28-unit apartment complex. Construction never began due to high costs.

Assistant county administrator Tom Almonte confirmed that 43rd Street lease with Contemporary Housing has ended. Pinellas will also put that property out to bid for affordable housing, he said.

Dondero also noted concern about the developer’s $440,000 profit in the sale of the land to the county. In October 2019, Clerk of Court Ken Burke initially declined to release the $740,525 for the Housing Finance Authority to buy the land from Contemporary Housing due to the developer’s profit margin and the appearance of a conflict of interest by Stowers. He released the funds the next month.

Dondero’s report found the county did not obtain an independent appraisal on the land and used one provided by the developer that was more than a year old. The developer’s appraisal also was based on value for 36 units, which were not allowed by code.

Almonte said a series of reforms have been made as a result of the Oasis Acres issues.

Renea Vincent, who worked as Pinellas County planning director during the Oasis Acres project, resigned in May 2020 to lead Tarpon Springs’ planning department. The county’s planning department was reshaped into Housing and Community Development under the leadership of Carol Stricklin to better oversee affordable housing and planning issues, Almonte said.

Almonte said the county has also requested the inspector general review its affordable housing program for compliance.

All Housing and Community Development staff have received ethics training. Developers applying for funds must now declare on paperwork whether they have a conflict of interest with the county.

And now, Almonte said any project proposed in Lealman will be subject to an initial review by the Community Redevelopment Area committee.

“We have increased transparency which was not there to make sure we can mitigate something being approved that maybe the community doesn’t support,” Almonte said.