St. Pete to elderly: Get out!

Residents of Graham-Rogall complex have to find new homes in the next year

click to enlarge HOME IS WHERE? The St. Petersburg Housing Authority is evicting 238 residents from the Graham-Rogall complex, including Rabon Sanders, shown here. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
HOME IS WHERE? The St. Petersburg Housing Authority is evicting 238 residents from the Graham-Rogall complex, including Rabon Sanders, shown here.

Don't misunderstand Rabon Sanders — the Graham-Rogall complex is no Ritz-Carlton. Sometimes during rainstorms, water pours through his windows. Bedbugs infest some of the studio apartments. And in some places, the doorways are too narrow for his wheelchair.

Still, Sanders, 58, insists the 15-floor public housing complex near Tropicana Field is home, the only one he's known for the last nine years.

"I'm deeply sad," laments Sanders, sitting in his motorized wheelchair in the complex's courtyard. "As hard as it is here, I feel a connection to the building and a deep connection to the people here."

Yet Sanders, and 237 other residents of St. Pete's largest public housing complex, will have to find a new home. Over the next year, and in some cases, in as little as three months, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority will evict the residents of Graham-Rogall — all them elderly and/or disabled. All residents will receive vouchers to move without a wait into Section 8 housing.

SPHA officials say the move is for their own good, because the building is "unsafe." The residents — some of whom have lived there over two decades — say the only thing good is the land they are living on.

"This is a nice area," says Munroe, a 58-year-old legally blind resident of Rogall, "and that's why they want us out of here."

After the last renter rolls his or her wheelchair out of the building, the city will sell the 4-acre site to private developers to build a condominium.

The sale of Graham-Rogall to developers Vector Realty and KEGB marks the largest chunk of public housing sold by SPHA.

The transaction is no isolated occurrence. Since his appointment in 1995, SPHA executive director Darrell Irions has sold 70 percent of the city's public housing. Though many housing authorities across the nation are embracing the philosophy of dispersing subsidized renters throughout their communities, some local advocates argue some public housing is better than none. Especially in a city undergoing an affordable housing crisis.

"I'm astounded they approved this with the housing crisis," says Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center, which delivers food to Graham-Rogall residents once a month. "Some of these folks have lived there forever. That building is their support center. Their lives are so uncertain anyway, because of their income. To add this stress, too, is sinful."

The Graham-Rogall complex is actually two buildings. The 336-unit Graham Park, built in 1971, is a purely public housing project. The Rogall Congregate was built in 1978 to house 150 residents under Section 8 regulations.

For three decades, the Graham-Rogall complex has served elderly and disabled renters. Until 2003, their most pressing issues were broken elevators and an influx of younger disabled people.

But in 2003, the SPHA sold Graham-Rogall to Vector Realty (who soon brought in developers KEGB) for $12.2 million.

At the time, SPHA officials told residents the new owners would continue to provide low-income housing to the residents, according to published reports.

Two years later, they announced the developer would turn the buildings into condos. Residents would have to leave.

There was only one problem: a 1994 federal bond financing agreement that mandated Rogall's 150 units remain subsidized housing until 2017.

On April 17, the SPHA convinced the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create an exemption to the restriction.

The housing authority maintains Graham-Rogall is "obsolete" and "financially unsustainable." Repairs, officials say, would cost over $20 million.

"A lot of the issues are structural," says SPHA spokeswoman Audra Butler, adding the buildings have a litany of maintenance issues, including narrow doorways and hallways that make wheelchair access difficult.

Other repairs listed on a 2004 estimate — based on a construction estimate manual and not a consultant review — include a parking garage ($2 million), replacement of air-conditioner units with a chiller system ($2.8 million) and renovations to the complex's front entrance, lobby and rec rooms ($900,000).

Residents tend to disagree with the housing authority's priorities.

"I can tell you as a person in a chair, if you listed the problems of living in this building, I can assure you narrow hallways and doorways would be at the bottom of our concerns, not the top," says Sanders, a Graham resident. "We would much rather be able to stay."

On April 24, the housing authority released its Graham-Rogall relocation plan. Under the plan, all residents will receive Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, allowing them to move into the housing of their choice without having to wait. Using $1 million from the building's sale, the SPHA will pay residents' moving expenses and utility deposits.

"Nobody will be left without a home," says SPHA's Butler.

Housing authority officials say there is no shortage of housing available to the displaced residents.

"We shouldn't have an issue," Butler says. "The vouchers are good at most any property. We have found a number of openings in and around St. Petersburg."

Some community advocates are not so sure.

"In St. Pete, in particular, we've lost so much low-cost housing," says Cliff Smith, assistant director for Pinellas County Human Services, citing condo-conversions that have claimed thousands of rentals. "We need to hold onto these units, not get rid of them."

SPHA officials say the money from Graham-Rogall's sale will be used to create more affordable housing. Yet, in the past two years, the housing authority has purchased only two apartment buildings totaling 34 units. Last year, they botched a deal for a 90-unit complex that could have provided homes to some of the displaced residents.

There's also some question about the future housing prospects for elderly and disabled residents once they find a place to live with their Section 8 vouchers. Funding for Section 8 housing has remained flat for years. In addition, hundreds of subsidized housing agreements between property owners and the state are set to expire in the next few years.

"It's becoming more and more difficult, because there are less and less [property owners] taking [the vouchers]," says Smith.

Walker of Daystar worries the city's poorest residents will be forgotten once they're placed in a new apartment.

"Is [the housing authority] going to guarantee housing as long as [residents] are eligible?" asks Walker. "Are they going to provide support services, too, for that time?"

On a recent sticky spring day, several residents lounge in the gazebos fronting the Graham-Rogall complex. When asked about the building's sale, eyes narrow and voices lower.

"It's my home," says a 74-year-old former sanitation worker with a West Indies lilt. "I'd like to live out my life here."

Nearby, two men fixing a bicycle grumble.

"All the available housing is in the bad neighborhoods," one says. "I'd rather stay on the streets." The other adds, "I'd rather sleep in the park than move from here."

Another resident, Munroe, isn't satisfied with his other choices.

"The places they show us are a lot smaller," he says. "It's like being in a jail cell, because it's so small."

On the other side of the courtyard, Sanders shakes his head and stares at the aging building.

"It's a tragedy," he says. "How we treat our elderly and disabled is a reflection on the soul of the community."

"This is a nice area," says one legally blind resident of Rogall, "and that's why they want us out of here."


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