James and Lavern Watkins dreamed of owning their own home to raise their children and looked for several years, but couldn’t find anything in their price range.

But then the couple heard about the city’s Infill Land Bank Program, which provides city-owned lots to builders to construct homes to be sold to low- to moderate-income residents.

The Watkins also worked with the Greenhow family, who built the home, and The Keystone Challenge Fund (which has transitioned to HANDS of Central Florida) to help finance their dream home. They received $23,000 for their down payment and closing costs for the $242,000 home.

“Finally (we) were able to purchase a lovely home,” the Watkins wrote in a thank-you letter to city officials. “We feel our home is high quality, beautiful and will be a place our family will enjoy for many years to come.”

The Watkins family and their new home

The Infill Land Bank Program has helped at least four families achieve the dream of home ownership, with more to come this year and next. It also adds new homes to existing neighborhoods.

“Currently, we have four homes completed through that program that have been sold to low-income buyers, 15 additional under construction, and a total of 20 of them been sold, with 20 more coming under contract soon,” Mike Smith, the city’s housing program manager, told city commissioners this week. “And we plan on having a second round of that program coming out, hopefully in the middle of July to end of July.”

Smith discussed multiple ways the city is working to alleviate the affordable housing crisis through federal and state programs, including Community Development Block Grants, the Home Investment Partnership Program, the State Housing Initiatives Program, American Rescue Plan Act, and the Coronavirus Aid for Rent and Expenses program.

While some of these are programs that have been utilized for decades, Smith and city commissioners recognized that they are more important than ever to help working-class families to get into apartments and homes within their budgets. The programs and their funding for Lakeland in 2021-2022 include:

  • CDBG and HOME – $1.337 million ($975,018 and $387,047)
  • SHIP – $641,000
  • ARP – $1.4 million
  • CARES – $1.66 million starting in 2020.

Smith said the funding for CDBG is going down in the coming year, but the Home Investment Ppartnership Program — known simply as HOME — is increasing, so the city will wind up with a little bit less than this year. The CARES funding runs out next year – with about $200,000 left to spend from the initial pot of $1.66 million. Smith said the city is still taking applications for rental assistance thorough CARES.

“The ARP funding was a one-time funding, too, that we got last year,” Smith said.  “We won’t get that again unless COVID kicks up again.”

But he added that SHIP funding from the state increased significantly to $1.1 million for the next fiscal year. SHIP provides funds to local governments as an incentive to create partnerships that produce and preserve affordable home ownership and multifamily housing. The program was designed to serve very low, low and moderate income families.

The CDBG program has been around since President Gerald Ford was in office. It’s administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and makes up about 70% of the city’s funding for programs.

Nationally, the CDBG programs that deal with housing helped nearly 59,500 Americans in 2021 buy, build, or rehabilitate homes, apartments and public housing units. However, that’s down from nearly 180,000 in 2006. In fact, the rehabilitation portion of the program saw a steady decline during the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, with a low of 194 in 2021.

The HOME program began under President George H.W. Bush and constitutes about 30% of the city’s funding for home help and other social programs. It is the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed exclusively to create affordable housing for low-income households.

CDBG funds can be used for owner-occupied housing rehabilitation, bringing a home up to code, rental assistance for those struggling to pay, public facilities and improvements and public infrastructure. HOME funds can also be used for housing rehab, home purchase down-payment assistance, construction of rental properties and Community Housing Development Organizations.

The Lakeland home in the top photo was in disrepair and had to be torn down. The owner qualified as low-income and, as part of the federal HOME program, a new house was built on their lot.

The Infill program that the Watkins utilized is a city-run program, but potential homeowners can apply to use the down-payment assistance offered through the HOME program, like the Watkins did.

Last year, the city used funding to pay for 12 rehabilitation projects, including two reconstructions, five major and minor rehabilitation projects and six emergency quick fixes. Their programs also helped eight families buy a home.

The city began utilizing CDBG in 1975 and HOME in 1992. “Since the program started, we have assisted over 1,200 units with rehab and over 900 with home-purchase assistance,” Smith said.

The CARE Program, which began in April 2020, has helped 443 families with rent and utility assistance and 71 people with mortgage and utility assistance. The maximum award is $5,000 or up to 6 months of assistance.

According to the city’s website, “Housing is affordable if it costs no more than 30% of one’s income. People who pay more than this are considered ‘cost-burdened.’ Those who pay more than 50% are ‘severely cost-burdened.’ High housing prices can slow down a local economy, leaving jobs unfilled and siphoning spending power away from local goods and services.”

Since 2019, the city has partnered with builders to construct 722 new homes or apartments that are affordable.

The city commission will vote in July on the 2022-2023 plan for CDBG and HOME funding; once approved, the plan will be sent to Washington. Their goals include to provide:

  • Owner-occupied rehabilitation for 10 single-family homes.
  • Home purchase assistance in the form of down payment and closing costs assistance for five low-income households.
  • Temporary relocation for three low-income households.
  • Limited property clearance for two projects not directly related to the rehabilitation program.
  • Staff-level activity to support Housing Division-administered owner-occupied rehabilitation program for 10 low-income households.
  • Code enforcement activity for more than 2,000 households.
  • General program administration including the oversight, monitoring and coordination of CDBG and HOME programs for 10 low-income households.
  • Construction funds for one house to be built or acquired and rehabilitated under the HOME program.
  • Funds to help 100 low-income families at risk of homelessness through eviction defense and fair-housing community education.
  • Funds for resources to help 10 homeless households.
  • Funds to help pay utility cost for emergency homeless facility that provides shelter for 500 low-income and homeless citizens.
  • Funds for construction or affordable housing for one low-income family.

For the Watkins and their children, the city’s efforts have made their dream come true.

“Please continue offering the Affordable Housing Land Bank Program and working with the Greenhows to make a positive impact in our community,” the Watkins wrote in their thank-you letter. “Our family, and many others, are benefiting through your efforts.”

Get more information on the city-run programs here. Email the city of Lakeland’s Planning & Housing Office at housing@lakelandgov.net or call 863-834-3360.


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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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