New housing for the homeless is in the works

Homeless shelter - Wikipedia

Now that the city and county of Sarasota have coordinated their approach to the shared burden of homelessness, and local service agencies are cooperating to tackle the plight of those continually living outdoors, the question remains of where these people — mostly with mental illnesses or other disabilities — can afford to reside.

One contribution to the effort is taking shape within city limits, proposed for 2901 Fruitville Road: a $19.8 million, 80-unit project called Arbor Village. Made possible with government grants, the venture is a partnership between a Tampa-based affordable housing developer and a Sarasota nonprofit that offers support services to the disabled. At least half of the apartments — and potentially all of them — will become permanent shelter for folks who gave up hoping for it months or even years ago.

With a maximum capacity of 88 people, Arbor Village can’t solve the problem of chronic homelessness alone. But those involved in finding local solutions call it a highly promising start. The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness recently conducted its 2018 overnight survey, with totals not yet available — but the 2017 count identified 285 people defined as “chronically homeless” in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Don Hadsell, director of the Sarasota Office of Housing and Community Development, puts the number of new permanent supportive housing units needed in the city alone at around 150.

Building homes that are affordable for Southwest Floridians who depend on disability benefits or minimum-wage jobs poses an unforgiving math problem, and leveraging the necessary public dollars requires patience and expertise. While other local efforts to thread this tiny needle’s eye have failed so far, Arbor Village is one of only three projects to receive funding last year from the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which allocated more than $6 million in financing for homeless or disabled residents to the project. The development is slated for review by the city’s planning board on Feb. 14, and Hadsell predicted that “it will almost certainly be built. I’m totally confident.”

Blue Sky Communities, the builder, has nine affordable communities operating or under construction in Florida, with two in Jacksonville and Orlando and the rest clustered in the Tampa Bay area. Some are specifically for elders or disabled veterans, while others are unrestricted multifamily housing. Several have a mix of resident types, which could become the case for Arbor Village — although the funding application estimates that 90 percent of the units will go to homeless individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses.

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To provide the array of social and mental health support that these residents will need to remain safely in their homes, Blue Sky has partnered with a Sarasota service agency, Community Assisted and Supported Living, known as CASL — pronounced as “castle.” In operation since 1998, CASL currently cares for about 600 disabled residents in its own scattered housing units, including Renaissance Manor, an assisted-living facility. CEO Scott Eller said that CASL plans to expand its capacity to another 200 beds.

“We are going through the process with the city planning department,” Eller said of Arbor Village. “God willing, we’ll have shovels in the ground by June of this year.”

A place to call home

Blue Sky CEO Shawn Wilson said the key to creating high-quality homes for low-income residents is understanding how to deploy federal tax credits to make the math feasible, and partnering with nonprofit agencies to make the operation successful.

“We’re professional real estate developers; we’re good at public financing and we enjoy it,” Wilson said. “Normally, we look for locations where cities and counties have a need, and where the local governments have recognized the need and indicated a willingness to be part of the solution.”

The architectural design for Arbor Village is still in progress. Wilson predicted that the finished development will be “an asset for the neighborhood and the entire city. We’re tickled to be able to do something in the city of Sarasota. Frankly, I wish it was more than 80 units.”

According to the partnership’s application for state funding, Arbor Village will provide homes for the kinds of people whose illnesses have made them familiar sights — and sounds — on city sidewalks. Poor credit and arrests related to mental disorders or homelessness will not be a barrier, the document promised, but access will be denied to would-be tenants with convictions in the past three years for a violent felony, firearms violations, assault or stalking, or drug dealing.

Support programs built into the Arbor Village community will seek to stabilize individuals who may have resisted help in the past, allowing them to live in comfort and safety and even to join the workforce.

“It’s a very good location for us,” noted Hadsell, the city’s housing director. “It’s on a bus line, and even within walking distance of several employment opportunities. A new Publix is being built right near there that will provide additional jobs.”

Hadsell added that he has been working on the challenge of homelessness for more than 27 years, and believes this region has made remarkable strides in the last seven months. Since the Florida Housing Coalition delivered its recommendations to transform Sarasota County’s crisis response system in April, the city and county have come together to reserve 50 emergency beds at the Salvation Army, the Suncoast Partnership has reorganized for greater effectiveness, and agencies in Sarasota and Manatee counties have put in place a more efficient system for identifying and tracking people who need help.

All of these steps, along with rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing programs, were outlined in the report.

“The only one that has not yet been addressed in some way,” Hadsell said, “has been the diversion and prevention component of the homeless plan, and that was without a doubt our strongest area going into this. We’re not done by any means; rapid rehousing hasn’t even started yet. But it’s been a tremendous amount of progress.”

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