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Seminole council kills veteran housing project after next-door neighbors protest

The development would have brought more than 60 low-income housing units to Pinellas County.
The plot of land where the development of an affordable housing complex was proposed.
The plot of land where the development of an affordable housing complex was proposed. [ Photo courtesy of the City of Seminole. ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 8, 2021

Seminole City Council voted Tuesday against the construction of an affordable housing complex for disabled residents and veterans that had been nearly a decade in the making after its would-be neighbors showed up in force to oppose it.

The vote brings development plans for the proposed 64-unit housing complex — called Valor Preserve — to a screeching halt. The project had been in the works since the Pinellas County Housing Authority acquired the 13.5-acre property at 9575 Seminole Blvd. in 2013, and would have provided housing to residents earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income, with more than half of the units designated to give veterans preference.

The 5-2 vote comes as rent increases have sparked affordability concerns across Tampa Bay and low-income housing remains in high demand.

Following the vote on Tuesday, Pinellas Housing Authority interim director Regina Booker said she was “totally shocked.”

Booker declined to offer further comment, citing the need to regroup with her board and Tampa-based Norstar Development, which partnered with the housing authority on the acquisition and project planning.

Prior to the meeting on Tuesday, Booker told the Tampa Bay Times that she was feeling confident, and said getting approval was important because of federal low-income tax credits that were awarded and could go away without forward momentum. Those credits are sold to investors to help fund construction.

“We’re right at the end and we absolutely have to close and we have to get approval,” Booker told the Times before the meeting.

Now, the development — and the tax credits — could be lost.

Before the vote on Tuesday, 12 Seminole residents spoke in opposition to the project, citing concerns about increased crime and traffic. Most live in residential neighborhoods directly bordering the property.

“I don’t think any of you want this next door to your house, we certainly don’t,” Seminole resident Jason Hoch told council members. “I guarantee you this building will deteriorate and maintenance will be a problem, drugs will be a problem and crime will be a problem.”

Other residents said they felt it was inappropriate that property on Lake Seminole’s waterfront would be used for low-income housing, and expressed concern that it would negatively affect property values.

“It’s just shocking we would choose to use a beautiful piece of property like that for something like this,” Ryan Laun said to the council. “I’m not saying that affordable housing doesn’t belong in our city. What I’m saying is, is this the right spot for it?”

Residents offered similar comments during the first public hearing on the project Nov. 16. During that meeting, Norstar attorney Ed Armstrong said that he felt the comments stemmed from stereotypes about affordable housing, rather than fact.

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Despite the public outcry, the council voted 6 to 1 at the time to move the project forward for Tuesday’s second public hearing. Mayor Leslie Waters cast the lone no vote, stating that she felt the land could be put to better use.

During Tuesday’s vote, Waters kept true to her earlier statements.

“My major reasons for voting no in November remain the same,” Waters said. “Is this project the highest and best use of this property? I think not.”

Waters said she saw the project as a lost tax opportunity because the residential units would be taxed at subsidized rates. The land has remained unoccupied since 2013, so the only taxes currently being paid are those associated with the land.

But Waters also said that she was concerned about the complex placing increased responsibility on local government, and about a lack of community support.

Seminole City Council voted against the approval of an affordable housing development during a meeting on Dec. 7, 2021.
Seminole City Council voted against the approval of an affordable housing development during a meeting on Dec. 7, 2021. [ Lauren Peace ]

“Not one citizen has come before this council in support of Valor Preserve,” Waters said. “So I’ll be voting no.”

Vice Mayor Jim Olliver and council member Tom Christy voted in favor of the development.

“We need affordable housing in this community. We need support for veterans in this community. We need support for disabled citizens in this community,” Olliver said.

Olliver, who was the founding provost of the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College, said the arguments made against the housing development were similar to the ones he heard back when trying to get approval for that campus. In that example, he said resident concerns waned with time.

“I think our veterans and our disabled citizens are the highest and best use (of this land),” Olliver said.

Had the project been approved, the proposed development was going to be supported by Boley Centers, a not-for-profit organization serving individuals with mental disabilities and specializing in services for youth and veterans in Pinellas, Manatee, Pasco and Sarasota counties.

Booker, from the Pinellas County Housing Authority, said that the project was set to be the first affordable housing development operated by the authority in a city, rather than unincorporated Pinellas.

“When you talk about affordable housing, everybody supports it, says it’s amazing,” Booker said on Monday before the meeting. “But when it comes to fruition and it’s close to them, it’s ‘not in my backyard.’”

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