Housing Choice: Talbot House Program or Veterans Vouchers

City commissioners face a decision today on two different approaches in providing affordable housing: nominal rents and social services for low-wage workers through Talbot House or vouchers for veterans.

Two entities have submitted proposals on how the city should dispose of a rundown apartment building, now valued at $160,000. It has 16 studio apartments of 500 square-feet each.

The city foreclosed on the trash-strewn, abandoned property at 910 and 920 N. Vermont Ave. in February 2018 after the owner had accumulated massive code violations. It was turned over to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which cleaned it up, evicted homeless people who had been camping there and brought in a heavy dose of police patrols in an effort to thwart drug dealing and other criminal activity.

Differing approaches

The two proposals before the City Commission are:

* Talbot House Ministries Inc. has asked the city to donate the property and $50,000 as the nonprofit works on a community fundraising effort and on securing a loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank. Talbot House, which plans to spend $700,000 on rehabilitating the complex. operates a homeless shelter with free medical clinic and other services nearby.

It plans to lease the apartments for $250 to $600 a month to those who earn $9 to $11 an hour and to those who are disabled, providing case management and other services available through its organization.

Terms of the loan, which would be forgivable, include that the affordable housing rates continue to be offered for at least 20 years.

* Premier Housing Investments LLC of Zephyrhills has proposed buying the complex for $240,000, which is $80,000 above assessed value, rehabilitating the property and providing housing to veterans using the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.

City officials are familiar with Premier, which previously bought a CRA property as well as other apartments, triplexes and duplexes near the downtown area, rehabilitated them and rented out units, often accepting HUD vouchers available through the Lakeland and Polk County housing authorities to help low-income residents pay fair-market value for their apartments.

Along with its proposal, the company submitted a letter of support from Harry McCurdy, a section chief of Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program through the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

Background

A memo from the City Attorney’s Office explains to commissioners that the city had numerous inquiries about the property. Then, during a Mayor’s Homelessness Steering Committee meeting, Brenda Reddout, executive director of Talbot House Ministries, expressed interest in renovating the apartments for veterans, workforce and disabled housing.

Following negotiations with CRA staff, Talbot House’s proposal was taken to the CRA Advisory Board, which recommended approval. As required, a Notice for Disposition of Property was published. Premier then sent a letter of intent.

During the City Commission’s Friday morning agenda study session, CRA Director Alis Drumgo said the Advisory Board was aware that other proposals were likely to come in after the notice was published, The advisory board chose to recommend Talbot House’s offer because it makes a long-term commitment to providing truly affordable housing and supportive services to those with very low and low incomes.

Commissioner Phillip Walker said that in his work with the city’s Gang Task Force and dealing with the problems in the neighborhood in the last five years, he is thankful that the CRA acquired the property and cleaned it up.

“I am proponent to make sure we have someone who is a partner with us and I believe Talbot House will be that,” Walker said.

Time crunch

Reddout told commissioners on Friday, “We have raised $350,000 from the local community of the $700,000.” And, she said, the Talbot House staff is working on a tight schedule to file paperwork for the loan through the Federal Home Loan Bank. It is an annual process and the first rounds of paperwork is due June 1 through June 30, she said.

Drumgo recommended that commissioners accept Talbot House’s proposal rather than send the issue back to the CRA Advisory Board to weigh both proposals.

The CRA can dispose of property without going out for requests for proposal and can develop property as long as it fits in the redevelopment plan for the neighborhood, which the Talbot House proposal does, he said.

Voucher system

Commissioner Justin Troller said, “I am not against the cash offer. But we have made a focus in the last year to focus on housing that is affordable.“

If Premier pays $240,000 for the property and invests $700,000 in it, the value goes up to nearly a million dollars, which means fair market value rent would be far above $600, Troller commented.

A Premier spokesman, who did not identify himself during the commission agenda study meeting, said, “Our intention is to do strictly VA housing there and we will put it in writing.”

“We are a big part of the solution that has stopped what is happening in this neighborhood,” he said, citing the cleanup of adjacent multi-family properties Premier has purchased.

Premier’s letter of intent to purchase says, “Our vision is to take this opportunity to acquire the Vermont Avenue complex to expand our relationship with the local VA programs and the Lakeland Housing Authority by providing the affordable low income housing that is so desperately needed in our community.”

Talbot’s offer

To Commissioner Bill Read’s comment that it appears Talbot House and Premier were going to do the same thing, Reddout responded, “It is not the same thing; not even close to the same thing. Talbot will case manage those in the 9 10, 11 dollars hourly salary to make sure they do not become homeless.”

In addition to case management, the tenants will have free medical and employment services available, she said.

“This is true affordable housing, not a voucher system,” Reddout said. “This is not even close to a voucher system.”

With 17 percent of the local population working in retail sales, which pays in the $9 to $11 range, the $250 to $600 rent is affordable, Reddout said. There is virtually no housing available even at $600 a month, she said, referencing their staff’s survey last week that found no rental properties available in Lakeland under $800.

Drumgo added, “There is difference between rent locked in at $250 to $600 and a voucher.”

And, Drumgo said, “Just because someone is receiving a voucher does not mean it is affordable housing.”

“As a veteran, with respect for what the VA does, I don’t know that the services would be comparable to what Talbot House offers,” Drumgo said.

The Vermont Avenue property is about three-tenths of a mile, an eight-minute walk, from the Talbot House campus. Premier owns adjoining property.

Drumgo said that Talbot House’s offer is contingent upon approval of its loan application.

Rapid re-housing

In addition to deciding what to do with the small apartment complex on Vermont Avenue, the City Commission is slated to approve a three-year agreement with the St. Vincent DePaul Society of South Pinellas to administer a rapid re-housing program for very-low income to low-income people who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness.

The city will fund the first year of the program through a $65,000 grant from the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, provided the city receives its expected funds. The per-client spending limit is $5,000.

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Please donate now.