Renderings submitted to the city by The Lunz Group and Sloan Engineering Group show the first two buildings Gospel Inc. plans to construct. | Courtesy of Gospel Inc.

If you’re looking for subsidized affordable housing in Lakeland, it may be years before you get it, according to city officials and leaders of local agencies who help families find housing.  

The Lakeland Housing Authority opened applications at the beginning of August for Section 8 vouchers and public housing. Its executive director, Ben Stevenson, said 7,200 households applied; the agency currently has 1,525 vouchers to give out. Stevenson said that’s just a glimpse of the affordable housing crisis in Lakeland. 

“We’ve had waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 for years,” Stevenson said.

Seeing the substantial need, Stevenson said his organization has requested additional funding from the federal government to bring the total vouchers it can issue up to 1,800, but the request has yet to be approved. He said his staff is currently working to give out the 1,525 vouchers, based off of the waiting list. 

Many of the households on the list won’t qualify for the vouchers, according to Stevenson, due to being above household income limits, or having a criminal record with drug or child molestation convictions or violent felonies that would make them ineligible for the program. 

“Our properties stay at 90 percent occupancy. That’s why you see us trying to build new properties. (For) every 10 families that need affordable housing, there’s only three units available,” Stevenson said. “There’s a huge housing shortage across the whole nation.” 

“For every ten families that need affordable housing, there’s only three units available.”

Ben stevenson, executive director of the lakeland housing authority

Stevenson said the housing authority advertises when it is accepting applications through radio ads, in the newspaper and on its website. He estimated the people on the waiting list could wait months or years to receive a voucher or access to public housing. 

“We’re not even close to solving the housing shortage problem,” Stevenson said. 

But Stevenson said they continue to work toward solutions. The housing authority plans to start construction on Twin Lake Estates phase III in the beginning of 2024, as long as it receives tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation this fall. Construction lasts anywhere from 12 to 14 months, Stevenson said, adding they’d probably accept applications for that property at the end of 2024. It will have 84 multi-family units and will be located near Hartsell Avenue, across the lake from the RP Funding Center. 

“We were fortunate to get a ($450,000) grant from the city,” Stevenson said. 

Two upcoming projects will target homelessness

The City of Lakeland does not handle rental applications or find homes for individual tenants. However, city officials do work to encourage and support construction of affordable housing, from financing to permitting and infrastructure improvements.

The City Commission voted Monday to allocate $1,401,459 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to two new affordable housing projects focused on helping people transition out of homelessness or insecure housing.

Griffin Lofts will get $685,000 as gap financing to help build a four-story building with 60 apartments  — 38 one-bedroom, one-bathroom units and 22 two-bedroom, two-bathroom units. The project is being developed by former Lakeland City Manager Gene Strickland in partnership with Carrfour Supportive Housing. It will be on Griffin Road near U.S. 98 North, close to the Home Depot store.

Gospel Village will get $685,000 to help it build the first 40 of 72 planned one-bedroom units within a complex of three two-story buildings at 1120 E. Lemon Street, between East Main and Lemon Streets. The small 470-square-foot, efficiency-style apartments will be exclusively for people at or below 30% of the area median income — which currently is $15,000 per year for one person or $21,411 for a family of four.

The remainder of the ARPA funds — $31,459, or 2 percent of the total — is set aside for administrative costs. City Housing Manager Mike Smith said of the two projects, Griffin Lofts is closer to breaking ground. It has received building permit approvals and is ready to close on the full funding for the project.

The Gospel Village project has site plan approval, but building permits have yet to be approved. Smith explained that the 15-year-old organization had a leadership change that delayed the project briefly, but it is now moving forward again.

In May, Gospel Inc. Secretary Craig Mozhdehi said in an email that founder Brian Seeley was “handling some personal matters and has chosen to step away from the ministry.” The new executive director is Ray Steadman.

Two earlier grants in 2020 and 2021 totaling $1,824,000 from the Polk County Board of County Commissioners helped Gospel Inc. purchase a 35-unit mobile home park known as Gospel Village, as well as adjacent properties for offices and future residential units. Since that time the park’s renovated trailers — tiny homes to 35 residents — have reached capacity.

Lift station delays opening of Eddie Woodard Apartments 

The Lakeland Housing Authority also has a new property, Eddie Woodard Apartments, next to the Walmart in Mulberry near the border with South Lakeland. The property has 96 units, none of them public housing units. According to Mulberry City Manager Richard Johnson, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency contributed a $168,000 grant toward the project. 

Construction on the property has been completed for a few months but Stevenson said tenants have been unable to move in, due to delays with a new water and sewage lift station being built.

 “Those people have been waiting months to move in. It’s been a hardship for them. An unnecessary hardship,” Stevenson lamented. 

Johnson said the new lift station has been inspected by his staff. He anticipates the city will be able to issue a certificate of occupancy for the property within a few weeks. 

New projects help, but ‘not nearly enough’

The city of Lakeland has added 682 affordable housing units since October 2019, according to the city’s data, and new projects in varying stages of development are expected to bring the total close to 1,300.

Some other recent affordable housing projects in Lakeland include Swan Lake Village and Swan Lake Landing, located near the intersection of Griffin and Kathleen Roads. The properties are being developed by Blue Sky Communities.  

Swan Lake Village began welcoming residents to its 48 one-bedroom and 36 two-bedroom units in March — including many who were on the Housing Authority’s waiting list for a long time. Blue Sky Communities said Swan Lake Village is “100% full with a waiting list over 1,500.”

The Swan Lake Landing website said it anticipates opening late 2023, and said no application or rental information will be available before the fall. According to the city of Lakeland’s housing website, the property is expected to have 88 units, including 20 one bedroom apartments, 44 two bedroom apartments, and 24 three bedroom apartments. The city’s website also indicates there’s a range of income limits for different units, but none greater than 80% of the area median income. 

A rendering of Swan Landing shows what the complex will look like when complete. It is expected to open in late 2023.

“We’ve had some affordable units added but not nearly enough to cover the need for them,” said Michael Smith, Lakeland’s Housing Program Manager. “We get a lot of phone calls every week with people looking for somewhere to rent. We could put a thousand units out tomorrow and they’d fill up immediately.”

Smith said the word is out that Lakeland is an affordable place to live in comparison to Tampa and Orlando. He lists a slew of reasons why people are moving here lately. 

“I’m not sure of a good solution. Where Lakeland sits geographically, it’s part of the reason why we’re getting a huge demand. It’s in publications for being a boom town so people are starting to notice Lakeland … We’re cheaper than Tampa and Orlando and as long as we are, people are going to come from Tampa and Orlando. With the recent hurricanes, we’ve had a lot of people from the islands who got hit from the storms moving here,” Smith explained. “I don’t know that we’ll ever meet the demand.”

If developers have the will, the city will find a way

Smith said the current Lakeland City Commission is pro-development and has been open to offering grants to affordable housing projects. He said the state has made a lot of funding available as well. 

“We’re doing everything that we can to develop as many affordable housing units that we can with developers,” Smith said. “It’s tough right now.”

Smith said there was momentum in 2019, when the city created its Infill Land Bank Program, selling lots to builders or developers for $1,000 to build houses to be sold at an affordable rate. The goal was for those homes to be sold for under $200,000. 

Then the pandemic hit. Smith said some funding sources shifted. Also, the real estate prices in Lakeland skyrocketed, along with mortgage rates, and Smith said the labor market dried up. 

“The same projects are costing twice as much as they did before the pandemic.  People can’t afford a $250,000 house now because interest rates have increased mortgage payments by $500-$600 a month,” Smith said, adding that some of the people who planned to buy the new homes couldn’t close once construction was completed because of the changes in the market. 

According to Smith, 40 lots were a part of the first round of the program. Many of those homes are just being completed and selling for around $250,000 due to changes in the market. The City of Lakeland’s Housing department has just started to issue 57 lots to builders in the second round of the program. It increased the income limits to attract moderate household incomes that may accommodate first responders and teachers. Smith said with the increase in costs, it wasn’t possible to build homes that a lower-income family could afford. 

“Only way to reach low income is with rentals,” Smith explained. “I’m not sure we will because there’s so much demand.”

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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