Two years late, troubled Tampa apartment complex finally opens its doors

A community room is still under construction at the Tempo at Encore apartment complex in Tampa. The Tampa Housing Authority is now relocating public housing residents into the building after a two-year delay due to legal battles with contractors, one of whom was involved in affordable housing fraud. The building is a mix of subsidized and market-rate apartments. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

TAMPA — After two years of delay, a crooked contractor that was fired twice and at least two lawsuits, low-income families and renters are finally moving into a new $26 million apartment block on the edge of downtown Tampa.

The Tampa Housing Authority began last week relocating families to the troubled Tempo at Encore, a seven-story complex will provide much-needed subsidized housing for about 132 families and also include 71 apartments that will be offered at market rates.

A litany of construction problems meant frustrating delays for residents. More than 7,000 families are on the waiting list to live in one of the 132 subsidized apartments. Overall, almost 30,000 people are on the Housing Authority’s waiting list for low-cost housing.

"Its’ so important to get a place you can afford," Moore said. "It’s a quality building with amenities and close to jobs. All of them are factors related to why people would wait."

Tempo is part of the agency’s signature $425 million urban renewal project to replace the Central Park Village public housing project. It includes a swimming pool, fitness center, a community building with a computer lab and an outdoor area to watch movies.

But problems became apparent in June 2016 when the Housing Authority fired the contractor, the Siltek Group. The building was about 75 percent complete but officials cited shoddy workmanship, failure to provide enough workers and a lack of cooperation with building inspectors.

Another worry: Siltek founder Rene Sierra was working as project manager even after he had pleaded guilty in a multi-million dollar kickback scheme involving affordable housing in South Florida. He was later sentenced to three years of probation, including six months of home detention with electronic monitoring and was ordered to repay $1.2 million to the government.

The Housing Authority and its development partner, Banc of America Community Development Corp, sued Siltek hoping to recover some costs. The saga didn’t end there.

In January 2017, project underwriter Berkley Surety hired Tron Construction, a firm owned by Sierra’s wife that operates out of the same office, to take over the project. Five months later, the Housing Authority also fired Berkley and Tron, whose workers were escorted off the construction site. Officials said many of the building’s windows had to be replaced because they were prone to leaks. The separate clubhouse/community room building had to be demolished and restarted.

A second lawsuit, this time naming Berkley and Siltek as defendants, followed. Both cases are still ongoing.

The Tempo was finished by KAST Construction. The estimated $10 million cost was covered through leftover funds, with the shortfall being made up by the Housing Authority’s development partner.

"It was a lot of headaches but we got what we want," Moore said.

Tempo’s mixture of subsidized housing and market rate rents is intended to avoid creating pockets of poverty that characterized the large housing projects of the 1940s and 50s.

Among those signing leases for a market-rate apartment on Thursday was Jose Rivera, 29 and Junia Rivera, 34. The couple wed three years ago but until recently had been unable to afford their own place. Monthly rents at Tempo range from $960 for a one bedroom apartment to $1,375 for three bedrooms.

“We’re more excited than our faces can show,” said Jose Rivera.

But leasing staff at Tempo had no available apartment for Patricia Wolf, who has been homeless since June and is looking for subsidized accommodation.

She was widowed at the age of 37 and focused on working and raising her children. Now 62, she is on disability because of health problems with her liver. She has been staying with family and friends, a situation that led her doctor to prescribe her anti-depressants.

“I’ve just been going from one place to another,” she said.“I’ve never been depressed my whole life.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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