Nonprofits step up pace of affordable housing construction in St. Petersburg

Bolstered by former City Council Member Karl Nurse, Steve Plice believes his nonprofit is making a difference by providing affordable housing in one of St. Pete's poorest areas
Published March 7

ST. PETERSBURG — Steve Plice loves a challenge. He was a neighborhood leader and an advocate for going green before it became a hotly debated topic.

When few were renovating and building homes in Midtown, one of the city’s poorest areas, he was doing so.

Plice’s Sustainable Communities Renaissance Project has since been joined by a growing number of other nonprofits intent on increasing the availability of decent, affordable housing in a 7.4-square-mile expanse now referred to as the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.

Plice’s group has renovated 10 houses and built three since 2012, which he views as modest but an important step toward helping to revitalize the neighborhoods extending roughly from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S and Fourth Street to 49th Street.

“The Midtown area, when we started, there was nothing going on construction-wise,’’he said. “Mostly, it was economics. And after the recession, banks weren’t real keen on lending money. We thought, if we started rehabs and new construction, other people might get involved. The winds were blowing in the right direction and what we were doing had a big impact.”

"We have been trying to change the equation.”

Others have too.

“People want to purchase homes. It's a matter of not necessarily what they can afford, it’s a lack of housing stock. That’s why we are trying to get in and do what we can,” said Deborah Scanlan, president and CEO of Neighborhood Home Solutions at 1600 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S.

NHS has been around since 1980 and has built at least 50 homes in the past 20 years and rehabbed about 15 or 20, Scanlan said. One of the agency’s best-known houses was built of shipping containers in Bartlett Park in 2006, but the recession curtailed plans to build more.

“It's just something that we were ahead of our time, Scanlan said. "It just didn’t make economic sense to continue at that time.”

NHS is again building homes. At 634 16th Ave. S, a three-bedroom, two-bath, one-car garage home will be finished this month and sell for $160,000 to $165,000.

Plice, 71, a former president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association and head of the Pinellas Living Green Expo, said he got involved in affordable housing “because it needs to be done.”

“I'm semi-retired. I need something to do that is rewarding and making a difference,” said Plice, who owns a painting contracting business with his wife, Carol, and receives no salary from Sustainable Communities.

He gives credit for the endeavor to former City Council Member Karl Nurse, who started buying and renovating homes on his own.Nurse, though, was also the area’s councilman, “which made it difficult for him to be personally involved,” Plice said.

“With his encouragement, I got involved and we started to put together a team of people who could do this. We pay contractors and the way we’ve been operating is Karl Nurse has been our banker. Banks would never lend money to us. We don’t have the assets."

When a house sells, they pay back Nurse, who provides money for another project.

“We try to have a new house and a rehab in the works at any given time. We try to cluster them as much as possible," Nurse said in an email. "We know that clustering has much more impact and improves the chances that the nonprofit will come out in the black.”

A Sustainable Communities home at 1719 19th Ave. S was recently bought by a young family. The three-bedroom, two-bath home with a fenced yard, solar panels and a hybrid water heater sold for $175,900.

“A house that is very, very similar to this, just one block down, we built and sold in 2014 for $125,000. When we sold it for $125,000, that was the highest sales price for a new building in Midtown since the housing collapse,” Plice said.“I’m not saying that we changed the housing market, but we are making it more attractive for people to build in here.”

Building affordable housing is new for the Pinellas County Urban League. President and CEO Watson Haynes said the organization has a contract to buy three lots and is partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties to acquire another six.

“At this point, we have a list of people, about 50 to 60, lined up. They want homes,’’ he said. “When we look at the rent they are paying, they are finding out they might as well own.”

Habitat is involved in a new partnership with nonprofits to build homes for buyers with incomes higher than those who normally qualify for Habitat homes.

“We have seen a very big need in the demographic that is slightly above those that Habitat serves,” said Alison Riley of Habitat.

Habitat is able to build at a lower price, she said. Under its arrangement with the nonprofits, Habitat builds houses on land bought by a nonprofit, which also finds a family for the home and pays Habitat a 10 percent developer’s fee.

“Then we as an affordable housing organization are able to serve more families in the community," Riley said.

Victor Bui, 32, bought a house built by Habitat through its partnership with Sustainable Communities.

“I love it. It’s the first home I’ve bought. It is very well constructed," he said of the house at 1922 Melrose Ave. S. “This is a bargain. I feel like I hit the jackpot. I have a huge back yard. I have a garage, an open floor plan. Then, as a bonus, it has solar panels, so my electricity has been under $10 a month.”

Bui, a pharmacist, has installed an outlet in the garage to charge his Tesla. He did not use a city incentive program to buy the $165,000 three-bedroom, two-bath home.

Asked whether Bui was eligible to buy one of Sustainable Communities' affordable homes, Plice said his nonprofit is not qualifying potential buyers based on their income.

“Rather, we are looking for people who are going to be an asset to the community," he said. "We are trying to avoid landlords and rental situations. The folks we are interested in working with are families who want to put down roots, who want to be part of the community.”

Habitat sets no income restrictions under the partnership, Riley said.

The city itself has built 30 new homes and rehabilitated nine in the area since 2010, said Joshua Johnson, director of housing and community development. He said St. Petersburg offers qualified households financial assistance of up to $20,000 to buy homes, as well as rehab assistance.

Land is also available through the city’s lot disposition program. The cost is $4,000 a lot, but that may change. Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes said the City Council will be asked in April to reduce the price to $10, making the lots “essentially free.”

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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