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Habitat leads revitalization of Lealman

Mark Parker

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Mike Sutton (right), president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, presents Agnes Jackson with the keys to her new home. Jackson's grandsons stand at her side, while Ron Brock (left), territory general manager for Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, looks on. Photos by Mark Parker.

Located between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, the unincorporated area known as Lealman is undergoing drastic changes and experiencing rapid growth.

Long considered an underserved community and identified as the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), Pinellas County officials are investing a substantial amount of time and funding to make Lealman more attractive to residents and businesses. With a lack of housing inventory and undeveloped land serving as significant barriers to entry in St. Petersburg, the county is increasing its already momentous partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties to help revitalize the area.

Friday morning, Habitat presented five new homeowners with the keys to their houses in Lealman. The celebration is part of the organization’s 10-in-10 campaign, where 10 families will realize their dream of homeownership in 10 days through June. The nonprofit recently built 12 homes in the area – not including the five unveiled Friday – with at least 15 more on the way in the coming months.

“It’s another example of a strong public-private partnership we have here in Lealman,” said Chris Moore, assistant to the county administrator and government liaison for the community, to the Catalyst following the ceremony. “We just entered into an agreement with them earlier this week and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, as well.

“So, Habitat will be building at least 10 homes a year for the next three years, and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay (RTTB) will be rehabbing a similar number each year.”

The latest partnership between Pinellas, the local Habitat affiliate and RTTB is through the county’s Housing Investment Program (HIP) and Housing Rehabilitation Program (HRP). HIP provides Habitat with up to a $55,000 subsidy to construct single-family homes for residents earning less than 120% of the area median income (AMI). The funding is to offset land acquisition and construction costs.

HRP provides RTTB with up to a $50,000 subsidy for each rehabilitated single-family home for residents earning less than 80% of the AMI. The money is for large-scale repairs such as new roofs, windows and HVAC units.

On April 26, Habitat and RTTB announced their partnership and a joint office on 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg.

County commissioners approved the subsidies for a three-year term with a total combined funding of $3.65 million on June 21, just three days before Friday’s ceremonies. The new programs are open to everyone within the Lealman CRA, with incentives for “heavily-liened” properties and for occupants struggling to remain in their homes.

“The impact fixing a single-family home can have on a homeowner is tremendous,” said Moore. “There’s nothing better than the type of equity you can accumulate there to really help someone move forward with their lives.

“And there is no one more deserving than this woman that spoke here today.”

Brock and Jackson share a deep embrace. Coke Florida sponsored the home, and the two became close during the process.

That woman was Agnes Jackson. She was the first of five people to receive keys to their new homes Friday. Those five properties are part of another partnership between Habitat and the Pinellas County Housing Finance Authority (HFA), which selected Habitat to develop 12 scattered-site homes within the Lealman CRA.

The homes are sold to families earning below 80% of the AMI. With an approximate market value of $1.2 million, the county is holding the 12 properties in a community land trust to ensure affordability for at least 99 years.

Jackson’s home, which sits on a freshly landscaped corner lot at 54th Ave. and 40th Street North, represents the 753rd home Habitat has provided to the community.

“It would not be possible if it wasn’t for the ongoing support of the county,” said Mike Sutton, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat does not hand out houses to just anyone.

Participants in the program must invest hundreds of “sweat equity” hours, earn between 30-80% of the AMI, demonstrate a need for adequate shelter and possess the ability to pay back a zero-interest loan. Moore, Sutton and representatives from Coca-Cola Beverages Florida who sponsored Jackson’s home said she epitomizes the ideal habitat homeowner.

Jackson completed 350 sweat equity hours and attended 28 homebuyer education classes – between working two jobs. In addition to the dozens of community partners, including a representative from the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office that presented Jackson with a gift basket, several family members were on hand to watch the grandmother receive the keys to her home.

Ron Brock, Coke Florida’s general manager for the independent bottler’s St. Pete and Sarasota territory, recalled the first time he met Jackson in person was at 7 a.m. one morning. They were the first two people on the lot, and despite just clocking out from work, Brock said Jackson was eager to put in another six and a half hours working on the property in 90-degree heat.

“That’s the type of person she is,” said Brock. “When we want to be able to give back to the community – this is the type of person we want to be able to give back to.”

Her voice breaking, Jackson thanked Habitat for the opportunity to become a homeowner and for equipping her with the knowledge of how to be a good neighbor, sustain a financial budget and even maintain her newly acquired trees and lawn.

“Coke Florida – a special thanks to you guys,” said an increasingly emotional Jackson. “You guys chose to sponsor me on this journey, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Once secure in new and rehabilitated homes provided by Habitat and RTTB, Lealman’s residents will also benefit from a host of other county initiatives meant to revitalize the area.

The Joe’s Creek Greenway project is one of many the county is undertaking to revitalize Lealman. Screengrab.

During a county meeting in early June, Moore told commissioners that the Lealman Work Plan encompasses $57 million worth of projects. Pinellas dedicated over $24 million in ARPA funding for Lealman, with Moore noting many are “shovel-ready.”

Among the highlights is the Joe’s Creek Greenway, a $51 million initiative to transform the waterway and its banks into a thriving centerpiece. The county will restore the creek to a more natural state, improve environmental resiliency and provide green infrastructure to enhance water quality and wildlife habitat. In addition, a multimodal trail will increase connectivity and recreational and economic development opportunities.

The project will connect to the Pinellas Trail network and Raymond H. Neri Park. The county adopted a $5 million master plan for the park and expects construction to begin in January 2023. Both the greenway and park will connect to the Lealman Exchange.

The Lealman Exchange – a 77,000-square-foot campus built to provide programming and services to the underserved community – is another example of an innovative public-private partnership. In March, commissioners approved the St. Petersburg Foundation assuming daily operation of the county-owned hub to help the Exchange reach its full potential.

Businesses are also beginning to find the area attractive.

Tesla plans to convert a dilapidated Kane’s Furniture liquidation Center in Lealman into a state-of-the-art delivery and repair center. E-commerce behemoth Amazon has started construction on a delivery center along the underserved community’s border.

“We like to say, ‘with partners, you can do more,'” relayed Moore. “That’s certainly no more true than having an organization like Habitat come in.”

 

 

 

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    Jaclyn Swenningsen Elshoff

    June 24, 2022at3:48 pm

    Well done Chris Moore! Love to see ‘helping people’ out! I’m very glad i still live here in Lealman which is now turning out to be VERY MUCH IN DEMAND!
    I support Habitat! Nice to see.
    Thanks,
    Jaclyn Swenningsen Elshoff (on Joe’s creek)

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