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Symbolic senior affordable housing development breaks ground

Mark Parker

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The site of a former shantytown and antiquated public housing will soon offer hundreds of modern, affordable homes in a predominantly low-to-mid-income area outside of Largo.

Construction has commenced on Heritage Oaks, an 80-unit affordable senior housing project in the unincorporated Greater Ridgecrest community. Pinellas County and Newstar Development officials celebrated the occasion Friday morning.

Heritage Oaks marks the first step in the county’s long-awaited redevelopment of Rainbow Village. After the event, Sen. Nick DiCeglie noted soaring living costs and inflation have an outsized effect on elderly residents.

“Pinellas County has a high population of seniors, and those seniors are unfortunately making really tough decisions,” DiCeglie said. “If they pay for prescription drugs, can they afford the rent?”

Heritage Oaks represents the first step in replacing the antiquated Rainbow Village project. Image: Newstar Development.

The development’s 80 one and two-bedroom apartments are for those earning at or below 60% of the area median income, or $45,840 for a two-person household. Those will replace 48 deficient public housing units at 12455 130th Ave. N.

DiCeglie said projects like Heritage Oaks help ensure seniors “have one less thing to worry about. And that one less thing is probably the most important – and that’s a roof over their head.”

County documents state that Black citrus workers settled the area in the 1940s. A revitalization plan notes that nearly a third of Greater Ridgecrest families live below the poverty line.

Neil Brickfield, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, told the Catalyst that the site consisted of shacks or shanties before 1965. Local leaders formed the organization to address “substandard housing.”

The Housing Authority’s first project was Rainbow Village. The public housing project opened in 1967 with 200 apartments for low-income families and seniors.

“They were very nice … a quantum leap,” Brickfield said. “But today, they’re almost 60 years old. They’re functionally obsolete – they don’t even have 120 (volt) wiring. That was not required back then.”

The Housing Authority launched a redevelopment feasibility study in 2007. Brickfield said the organization received much-needed funding in 2019 and is now embarking on the first phase.

“This is a pretty exciting day,” he added. “There has never been a time in any of our lifetimes where affordable housing was such a pronounced community need. And it’s our responsibility as an organization to answer the call.”

Brickfield said the second phase, Ridgecrest Oaks, will feature a nearly identical three-story building. The redevelopment will replace Rainbow Village’s 200 substandard units with at least 240 apartments for seniors, individual workers and families.

The Housing Authority must first explain the plan to residents. They can then receive a housing voucher to relocate or move into a remaining unit in Rainbow Village.

Brickfield said the overwhelming majority chose the housing vouchers. Those residents receive a moving stipend and transportation to their new home.

“We do everything we can to minimize that inconvenience and make sure you’re set up, have a utility deposit and everything else done so you can thrive in the new location,” Brickfield explained. “Let’s face it, some people move away from this neighborhood, and they like where they live. But if they want to move back, there’s certainly a provision for that.”

The previously estimated $29 million Heritage Oaks project received $3.36 million in county funding. Brian Evjen, President of Newstar, said Pinellas County’s affordable housing support is a statewide model.

He also credited Raymond James for its investments, the Florida Housing Corporation for providing critical tax credits and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approving the demolition and subsequent redevelopment. “We’ve all been working to do this for a long time,” Evjen noted.

Pinellas County and Newstar Development official ceremoniously break ground on the redevelopment project’s first phase.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters expressed pride in the long-term partnerships created to see the project come to fruition. She noted that Heritage Oaks is just one aspect of a Ridgecrest revitalization plan that includes new parks and recreation, safer pedestrian paths and street and sidewalk improvements.

“These will be homes that will offer a stable, comfortable place for people to thrive in this community,” Peters said. “We don’t want to call what’s being built ‘housing’ … I know the word was intended to be a good thing at the time, but it certainly has a stigma attached to it.

“A good home is a foundation for a good community.”

The groundbreaking was the Housing Authority’s first of 2024. However, Brickfield noted that six more projects are on the way. He said the organization is in “hyperdrive to see how many new units we can produce” to ensure low-income residents have “a great place to live.”

 

 

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