Tampa Bay nonprofits innovate to help families caught in affordable housing crisis

As the holiday season started late last year, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties held a double dedication ceremony outside a renovated duplex in Lealman for two Pinellas County families and first-time homeowners.

Thanks to Habitat’s innovative approach and their own hard work, the Diviney family and the Al-Rubaye/Qasim family are no longer among the hundreds of thousands of households caught up in Florida’s affordable housing crisis.

It was a joyful day for both families. At the ceremony, Paula Diviney was overcome with emotion as she sat in her wheelchair with her service dog, Ellie Mae, on her lap.

“You have given our freedom back to us,” Diviney says. “Thank you for changing our lives.”

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties remodeled one side of the duplex to give Paula and her husband James Diviney a wheelchair-accessible home.
In the past 13 years, the couple survived health care crises; a Social Security snafu that declared James Diviney, a disabled veteran, deceased; homelessness; and a Section 8 apartment with door frames so narrow their wheelchairs were blocked from all but the living room. They had to live and sleep in the living room in side-by-side hospital beds.

The Diviney family’s neighbors at the duplex are Aws Al-Rubaye, his wife, Lina Qasim, and their two children, Haider, age five, and Qaswar, age two. Al-Rubaye and Qasim fled war-torn Iraq 10 years ago as refugees in search of a new beginning. Both are now American citizens, but their growing family outgrew a one-bedroom apartment. As rents skyrocketed and interest rates climbed, the family could not find a larger, affordable home.

“I thought it would be easier to get to Mars than to buy a home,” says Al-Rubaye while taking the keys to a new home in hand. Mike Sutton, president of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, chats with the Al-Rubaye/Qasim family while Paula and James Diviney wait for the dedication ceremony to begin.He told the Habitat staff that filing an application with the nonprofit organization "was like a life buoy ring thrown in my hand.”

Stepping up to meet a community need

More than 60 friends, volunteers and Habitat staff members attended the dedication on a quiet street in the Lealman community of Pinellas County. The Pinellas/West Pasco Habitat affiliate has built about a dozen new homes in the area and, over the years, more than 700 homes in Pinellas and West Pasco. 

In the next 12 months, the nonprofit expects to hand over the keys to unlock the doors of another 70 homes. At a time when skyrocketing housing prices have created a crisis of affordability in Tampa Bay - the average home price in St. Petersburg rose nearly 84 percent from December 2019 to December 2022 according to Zillow - the Pinellas/West Pasco HabitaIt is ranked number one nationally among Habitat affiliates in new home construction.

On tap are three projects with the city of St. Petersburg for a total of 66 townhomes; 54 townhomes in Largo; and a mixed-income development of 24 townhomes in Clearwater, with the nonprofit Tampa Bay Neighborhood Housing Services as a construction partner.

Building new affordable homes is a task that few for-profit companies will do.

“If affordable housing was profitable, everyone would be doing it,” says Mike Sutton, president and chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco.

Helping people stay in their homes

Most would agree the housing deficit is so deep in Florida that the state cannot simply build its way out of the affordability problem. Yet new housing stock and home repair are crucial parts of any plan to resolve the state’s dilemma.

Nonprofits historically have taken on these twin needs.

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, for instance, builds new houses and is heavily involved in helping families recover from natural disasters including the most recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian. The nonprofit recently announced grants and donations of almost $1 million to aid in the recovery in southwest Florida.

The organization is still helping families devastated by Hurricane Maria.

However, its basic focus is on owner-occupied homes in Hillsborough and Pinellas that need repairs such as a new roof, new air conditioning, weatherization, and minor electrical and plumbing fixes.

“We have housing stock that is deteriorating,” says Jose Garcia, executive director of Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay. “Unless we move to maintain it, it will be lost.”

The repairs, at no cost to the owner, allow residents to stay in their homes. It makes those homes safer and eases the financial burden of owners with limited resources.

“We also understand the importance of neighborhood stability,” says Garcia. “It’s also part of the good that we bring to the community.”

The affordable housing crisis, however, is increasing the need for new solutions that keep roofs over the heads of at-risk families. It calls for innovation, says Garcia.
“Now we want to bring affordable rentals to Sulphur Springs,” Garcia says.

Rebuilding Together has built several homes in Sulphur Springs in partnership with the City of Tampa. The neighborhood thrived once as a mecca for the “tin-can” tourists who flocked to the Springs. But highway construction split the community and ushered in decades of decline.

Rental homes are a first for Rebuilding Together, but Garcia sees the project as a new tool to address the affordable housing crisis.

The single-family homes will be built in partnership with the City of Tampa which will award about $250,000. Garcia said about $750,000 in funding will come from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh.

This project comes at a time when Florida is leading the nation in skyrocketing rental costs. Though new apartments are shooting up everywhere, the units typically are luxury apartments with rents out of reach of many low to moderate-income families and individuals.

In the 2022 ALICE report released by United Way Suncoast, the problem is laid out in stark detail. The annual report highlights the income deficiencies of working families and individuals who are asset-limited, income-constrained and employed (ALICE). They often are teachers, teachers’ aides, home health care workers, bus drivers, fixed-income recipients, and Florida’s tourist mainstays in the hospitality industry.
Those in the ALICE category are above the federal poverty line (a measure of poverty adopted in the mid-1950s) but struggle to pay monthly bills for housing, food and utilities.

In the Suncoast region, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, DeSoto and Sarasota counties, the report estimates more than 557,000 households are income deficient.

Innovative approaches 

Like Rebuilding Together, the Pinellas/West Pasco Habitat chapter is looking for innovative ways to take on its mission to deliver affordable housing.
Remodeling the duplex in Lealman, rather than building from scratch, was a new kind of project.

“We really took it down to the walls,” says Sutton. When finished, it was like a new home, he added.

But the nonprofit has always taken a different tack than other affiliates of the national Habitat for Humanity organization.

Sutton says many affiliates build on average about four homes a year.

That approach may not be the right choice locally, especially within Pinellas, which has a unique challenge. It is largely built out with limited land availability.

“It is the most densely populated in the southeast United States,” Sutton says. “We find we’re having to look at it differently. Whether they are villas or townhomes, a shared wall allows us to squeeze in a few more individual units, while fitting into the character of the neighborhood.”

Sutton says cities such as St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo are looking to partner with Habitat and other nonprofits on projects to redevelop properties in low to moderate-income neighborhoods. Cities can provide land and other support while Habitat focuses on its mission to build homes.

Public and private sector resources are needed, he says.

“It kind of takes the whole community coming together to make this work,” says Sutton. “We could do so much more if land wasn’t such a challenge.”

The organization typically has about 100 to 110 applicants in the “pipeline” who are in various stages of meeting eligibility requirements, Sutton says.

The Habitat model for homeownership requires applicants to put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” and to take educational classes on homeownership. They also must be employed or have some income, and have good credit.

The success of Habitat is in large measure due to the zero-interest mortgages made available to families that move into their new homes, Sutton says.

It is a tough program.

A Habitat home isn’t free,” Paula Diviney says.

She and her husband completed their “sweat equity” by working more than 700 hours at Habitat’s ReStore shop in Clearwater.

Sutton says there are too many families, such as the Divineys and the Al-Rubaye/Qasims, who are struggling through the state’s housing crisis.

“It’s the everyday person,” he says. “They make too much to qualify for government assistance but not enough to qualify for a traditional home loan. They are stuck somewhere in the middle. This provides them the opportunity to build a home, to build equity.”

For more information, visit Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties and United Way Suncoast.  
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.