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Affordable Housing In Polk County: Over 200 Units Could Open in Winter Haven


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 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. 

Credit: Maya Lora 
Publication: The Ledger
Published 4:00 p.m. ET Aug. 11, 2021
Excerpt of article used.