By Maya Lora, The Ledger

Two new affordable housing projects totaling more than 200 units could open in Winter Haven by 2024.

On Monday, the Winter Haven City Commission unanimously approved the allocation of funding for the two projects. It’s a move that was encouraged by members of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment, commonly known as PEACE, which have appeared at multiple commission meetings over the past few months.

PEACE has pushed for the commission to commit to seeing 150 new units of affordable housing built within the city and for housing to be prioritized for families making less than $30,000 a year, or 50% of the area median income.

The two projects in question would add 148 new units to the affordable housing market, according to proposals submitted to the commission. Lisa Watkins, Executive Director of the Winter Haven Housing Authority, said the expansion of affordable housing is sorely needed.

“We’re seeing an influx of families that are either migrating to this area or already living in this area, living with family, and they cannot readily afford the market-rate housing they see in the community,” Watkins said. “We don’t have enough apartment complexes in the greater Winter Haven area to truly address the influx of families we see coming in.”

The Lakeland-Winter Haven metro area is the second-fastest growing area in the nation and rental rates have exploded as a result of a housing shortage spurred partially by the migration of new residents into the area.

On top of the fact that Polk County does not offer enough housing for all of its residents both new and existing, affordable housing is especially hard to come by. And the economic impact of COVID-19 means families aren’t climbing up the financial ladder and vacating affordable housing for new tenants in need.

“We can’t help people until somebody moves. And our families right now are not moving,” Watkins said.

The Winter Haven Housing Authority is partnering with Miami-based Pantheon Development Group to redo the Lucerne Park Apartments located at 2503 6th Street NE. The housing authority currently owns the 60 units in the affordable housing complex and is looking to increase that number to 120 units.

While plans are not finalized, Watkins said the existing units will likely be demolished to make way for brand new one, two, three and four-bedroom units in a complex called Hillcrest Reserve.

“It’s important that we keep that mix because we have a lot of families that are looking for housing and when you reduce the number of bedroom sizes, sometimes you are limiting how many people you can actually serve with children or other family members,” Watkins said.

Watkins said there are exterior concerns with the complex and that bathrooms and kitchens need to be modernized to compete with other housing options. The Lucerne Park Apartments were built in the early 1980s and haven’t “weathered the storm” well, Watkins said.

The new units will be targeted towards residents making between 40% and 60% of AMI, slightly above what PEACE has been pushing for.

Debbie C. Jeffers, a Winter Haven resident and member of PEACE, said the organization wants to be “encouraging” of the new projects but still wants to see units at 50% or less of AMI prioritized.

“Fifty percent area median income is going to relate to people making less than $15 an hour,” Jeffers said. “And they’re the most vulnerable and they’re the ones that need the housing the worst.”

Following a staff recommendation, the city commission agreed to contribute $1 million towards the Hillcrest Reserve project, which is estimated to cost $28 million to build. The city will have to offer its financial commitment by completion of the project, currently slated for July 2024, with an 18-month construction period.

Watkins said tenants currently in the apartment units set to be knocked down will receive tenant protection vouchers that will enable them to find other housing in the community in a relocation process overseen by the housing authority. Those residents will have first claim to the new units once they open.

With the commission’s approval, the developers will apply through the Florida Housing Finance Corporation for a State Apartment Incentive Loan (SAIL). The city’s backing will boost the project’s chance of receiving funding, according to the project proposal.

The city also agreed to contribute $460,000 towards Florence Place, a new affordable housing project proposed by Tampa-based Blue Sky Communities on six acres at the northwest corner of 1st Street North and Avenue S Northwest. Blue Sky recently broke ground on Swan Lake Village, a $20 million affordable housing project on Griffin Road in Lakeland.

Florence Place, which has an estimated development cost of $22.5 million, will consist of 88 units of affordable housing with one, two and three-bedroom units targeted towards low-income and workforce families. President of Blue Sky Communities Shawn Wilson said in an email the units will be reserved for those making between 40 and 60% of AMI with a “small number” of units set aside for those making up to 80% of AMI.

The city will have to pay up when the project is completed, which is estimated to happen in 2023. Armed with city backing, Blue Sky will now apply as a local government area of opportunity in an attempt to win 9% tax credits through the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. Blue Sky received similar backing for its Griffin Road project from the city of Lakeland last year.

Geoffrey Harlan, Vice President of Acquisitions for Blue Sky, told commissioners at Monday’s meeting that they should get first indicators about funding in late September and will clear the last hurdle in December, if selected.

“Because this property is located in a CRA and because you guys are considering this local government area of opportunity funding of $460,000, that gives us a better chance than a lot of applications that are going to be turned in,” Harlan said. “This site does have a good chance of getting funding.”

More to come

The Lucerne Park Apartments is the first of the Winter Haven Housing Authority’s three complexes set to be modernized in the coming years, Watkins said.

The housing authority has 164 public housing units across its three complexes; two of them are considered family complexes and one is considered for the elderly. Watkins said all of the units are set to be “modernized” in phases to update offerings across the city, all of which were built in the 80s.

Unless all of those modernization plans include expansion like Hillcrest Reserve, those units will not contribute to the demands of PEACE, who want to see new units built to accommodate the expanding population of children experiencing homelessness in Winter Haven.

Back in March, 457 students in Winter Haven were identified as experiencing homelessness according to numbers gathered by Ben Ruch, the homeless liaison with Polk County Public School’s Hearth Project. By the end of the 2020-21 school year, that number had grown to 582 students, which is likely an underestimation.

At the end of the meeting, Jeffers with PEACE said the organization feels “guarded optimism” about the commission’s funding of these two projects.

The group is also concerned that the potential expiration of the eviction moratorium will “open the floodgates” and throw many more children and families into homelessness in the coming months.

“This is a start. We are so excited that they’ve decided to allocate this portion of their moneys, rescue plan moneys, to this effort and we’re also very encouraged that the developers that are trying to take on these projects seem to have credibility,” Jeffers said. “But the concern is that while we’re sitting here chatting, more kids are homeless.”

View the original story here.