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  1. St. Petersburg

Boley Centers' project for homeless families upsets some St. Petersburg neighbors

A Boley Centers housing project is under construction at 9625 66th St. N, Pinellas Park. Boley has purchased vacant land in St. Petersburg to build homes near Lakewood United Church of Christ and backing up against a single-family subdivision. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 22

ST. PETERSBURG — Boley Centers, a nonprofit organization whose clients include people with mental disabilities and the homeless, has bought a long-vacant piece of land on the edge of Lakewood Estates for a 20-unit development.

The property sits between Lakewood United Church of Christ, at 2601 54th Ave. S, and a doctor's office and preschool. It also backs up to a neighborhood of single-family homes. Boley's plan to house homeless families has some homeowners worried, but the church is unconcerned.

"We are in complete support of what they are going to do," said the Rev. Kim Wells, who met with Boley officials in April. "There would be fencing around the whole project and we told them we hope that you put a big gate between your property and ours. We'd like them to know that we are welcoming neighbors."

John Adams, who lives in the subdivision behind the proposed project, is uncertain about how it will affect the community. He's so worried that he says he'll probably sell the $500,000 home he and his wife love.

"I think Boley is a great organization and they do a lot. They are helping people who might have a troubled past and experience and these connections usually increase other criminal activity," he said. "We have a pretty low crime rate in our neighborhood. I don't want to see an increase in criminal activities like what has happened at the other Boley locations.''

A look at calls for service at four of Boley's properties over the past year included calls related to Baker Act issues, trespassing, aggravated assault and narcotics. Salt Creek Apartments, at 426 Paris Ave. S, with 18 units, had 97 calls in the past year, including six for trespassing and six related to lewd and lascivious behavior.

Jack Humburg, the agency's executive vice president of housing, development and ADA services, said Boley often develops properties in distressed neighborhoods with a history of crime. Boley's efforts to build safe, affordable housing are "typically the start" of their restoration and improvement, he said.

"Often, Boley tenants are the victims within a community that struggles with crime. At Salt Creek in the past year, the property has been dealing with a neighborhood drug dealer that was causing significant problems on the property. Our staff, along with St. Petersburg police, had requested that our tenants be vigilant in contacting them in order to crack down on the presence of outsiders and illegal activity," Humburg said in an email.

He added that Boley has hired security guards at Salt Creek and other properties to protect residents and that can increase calls for service. As for other calls, Humburg said that many Boley's clients don't have personal transportation and sometimes require emergency services for a mental health or medical crisis.

RELATED COVERAGE: Planned affordable housing tower blindsides downtown St. Petersburg condo neighbors

The agency's Lakewood project is not imminent, said Gary MacMath, Boley's president and CEO, who happens to live in the neighborhood. "Our developments usually take three years to occur before a building is opened," he said. "There's no financing in place."

Pinellas County Property Appraiser records show Boley bought the 1.4-acre property in April from Physician Plaza LLC for $675,000. It is zoned for multi-family housing. MacMath said the agency is completing a similar homeless family project at 9625 66th St. N, in Pinellas Park. It'll have 33 units.

Judy Ellis, president of the Lakewood Estates Civic Association, is upset about Boley's plans for her neighborhood. "We get all the low-income housing on this side of town," she said, adding that the project is giving residents "the heebee jeebees."

Homeless advocates say there's a critical need for affordable housing. According to the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board's annual "point-in-time" count, which produces data for one night, 2,415 people were homeless on Jan. 23. That number included 127 households with at least one adult and one child.

As of April, the Pinellas County School District counted 3,730 students meeting the federal definition of homelessness. Of those, said spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason, 370 live in a motel.

"There is a recognition that we are facing an affordable housing crisis and we truly value Boley's partnership in trying to end homelessness, especially among families with children," said Susan Myers, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Board.

Milford Strong lives a few streets from the planned development. "No one is against helping the homeless, but you also have to look at how you're going to impact the neighborhood in the long-term and the short term. Is it conducive to the area? How is it going to impact resale?" he said.

Ellis is planning to poll the neighborhood to gauge if a majority of residents oppose the project.

"If so, we are going to take our cause to City Hall. We're encouraged by what happened in Bear Creek," she said, referring to an affordable housing project recently squashed by neighboring residents.

State Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, who wants to encourage a way forward on affordable housing, is planning a town hall on July 16 at the St. Petersburg College Gibbs Campus.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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