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6/10/04 - Palm Beach Post

Affordable housing faces threat: Stereotypes

By Josh Mitchell

Mary Outlaw, retired school cook, church deaconess and careworn mother of six, could easily be cast as the poster child for affordable housing.

Her new $900-a-month apartment doesn't come cheap, even at this reduced rate. Still, the 66-year-old retiree thanks God and the government for the luxuries she now enjoys: air conditioning, a washer and dryer and a dining room where she serves her acclaimed baked chicken under a wall hanging of The Last Supper.

"I cried when I found out I had this place -- I cried!" Outlaw said in her living room at Venetian Isles, an affordable-housing complex in Lake Park.

Her joy, however, isn't shared by middle-class residents in suburban Boynton Beach, who are trying to block a similar development planned for their area. They complain the community will deteriorate to crowded tenements with unkempt yards, becoming a haven for crime and drug abuse.

It is a recurring debate for developers and housing officials.

For decades, they have emphasized the need for affordable homes subsidized by federal tax credits and state-backed loans to give people such as Outlaw and her husband, a retired trucker, amenities typically reserved for more affluent people.

And as Palm Beach County home values soar, officials warn that affordable housing is increasingly in short supply.

"We have an affordable-housing crisis," said Vince Larkins, president of the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches. "As the county grows, there's going to be more jobs."

Studies show the county is already thousands of units short of meeting the area's affordable-housing needs.

The county has about 35 affordable-housing developments. Developers are able to offer the units at reduced rates because they receive tax-exempt bonds from the county; federal tax credits, which are often sold to big companies for millions of dollars; and state-backed loans.

But plans by Housing Trust Group, the Miami-based developer of Venetian Isles, for 320 apartments and 100 townhouses west of Boynton Beach has riled some neighboring residents.

Manny Myerson, a vocal opponent of the plans for Heritage at Green Cay, researched the income levels of affordable-housing tenants. He found that many earn salaries in the low $20,000s.

"It's very close to the poverty level," said Myerson, 69.

He added that his mother-in-law once lived in an affordable-housing development where her home was burglarized.

Other critics have bombarded County Commissioner Burt Aaronson with e-mails and letters saying they did not want to live next to "those people."

They argue that Heritage at Green Cay tenants will struggle to carry groceries and laundry up stairs without elevators, and emphasize the lack of public transportation to get residents to jobs.

Nonsense, says Sean Schwinghammer, a vice president of developer Housing Trust.

He contends that the tenants have cars, undergo criminal-background checks and are evicted if convicted of a crime.

Schwinghammer points to Venetian Isles, where resident Kelly McIntosh says she has never felt safer.

McIntosh, a divorced mother of three, moved into her $724-a-month apartment four months ago. She sought a gated community after her previous apartment was burglarized while she was at work.

Now, she has the gates, as well as a police officer for a neighbor and access to a community clubhouse, computer room and swimming pool -- for $200 less than her previous place.

"Now I can take my kids to the movies," said McIntosh, 33, a service representative at St. Mary's Medical Center.

Like other Venetian Isles residents, McIntosh, who earns about $23,000 a year, underwent criminal and credit checks. She qualified for the complex partly because she earns less than 60 percent of the county's median income, $62,100 a year.

Housing officials say the aim of affordable housing is to help people such as McIntosh eventually buy homes. After one year at Venetian Isles, 5 percent of a tenant's paid annual rent can be credited toward a down payment on a home.

Venetian Isles offers more than just low rent, developers say. The clubhouse frequently hosts free workshops on taxes, computer training and job skills. Residents enjoy free Internet access in the computer room.

Gazebos, playgrounds and ponds dot the community, where a 6-foot-long alligator lives behind a fence in a pond in front of the clubhouse.

The homes, painted an elegant peach and built on a traditional-style boulevard, have high ceilings, walk-in closets and modern kitchens.

Monthly rents range from $724 for the smallest apartment to $964 for the largest townhouse. Residents can forgo the washer and dryer for cheaper rent.

"The best way to combat incorrect stereotypes is by building good products," Schwinghammer said.

Housing officials say the real nature of the Green Cay dispute stems from a misunderstanding of affordable housing, defined by the county as any housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a family's income.

"It's an economic definition. It's not a structural description, and that's where most people get lost," said Remar Harvin, the county's housing and community development director.

For Outlaw, affordable housing provided the home of her dreams.

She retired in 1999 after 32 years with Palm Beach County schools. Her husband was forced to retire one year later after undergoing open-heart surgery. Together they bring in $2,000 a month in retirement, Outlaw said.

For years they scraped by, making enough for food and clothing while doing without amenities such as heat and air conditioning, which their previous apartment lacked.

"I couldn't buy me a suit on Mother's Day," she said.

Now, their apartment has two guest bedrooms -- twin beds in one room, bunk beds in the other -- which are put to use by 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren when they visit.

Last week, Outlaw bought her first fishing rod, so that she and her husband can fish in the pond in front of their home.

Outlaw said she wants to spend her final years in the community.

"Everybody in church tells me that when they pass by it looks so beautiful," she said. "They couldn't kick me out if they wanted to.