Q&A with Jerel McCants: Tampa architect designs affordable housing in Ybor City

Ybor City has something of a split personality. During the day, it's professional -- no surprise to see a suit and tie strolling down the street. But once the sun sets, Ybor turns into a playground. Let's not forget though that people always have called Ybor home, many of them from lower- and middle-income households. As developers eye Ybor as prime real estate for new expansion, current residents may be priced out.

But two Ybor City creatives are teaming up to offer middle-income, affordable housing in the historic district.

Jerel McCants is an architect who moved from Atlanta to Tampa in 2004, and has since helped design affordable housing developments, such as Progress Village in Riverview in south Hillsborough County. Frank Rodriguez is a designer and founder of Mighty Fine Design in Ybor City. The pair are building three homes in Ybor, which they hope to have constructed within the next 12 months.

McCants spoke to 83 Degrees about their plan for the project and the importance of smart growth. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

83 Degrees: Can you tell me about the idea behind the affordable housing project you have planned for Ybor City?

Jerel McCants: Frank and I always strategize ways to pool our resources and do something for Ybor. We both operate just two blocks down the street. An opportunity came up where another person told Frank about some lots that were available in the area. He contacted an investor friend to purchase the lot. She was interested but needed to close the financial gap. They were going to use me to do the design but also asked if I'd put in some money to become a part investor. So the three of us decided to come together and brainstorm to fill the financial gap. So, I brought in a contractor [Terrance Bradford of Pro-Fit], who I’ve worked with before. he was comfortable doing some unconventional techniques to keep the cost down.

83: What sort of unconventional techniques does he use?

McCants: He likes to build houses that are raised on piers rather than a stem wall foundation. Sometimes houses are built slab on grade, so they’re just a couple inches off the floor. This contractor prefers to raise the house. It’s more of a Florida vernacular to have the house raised about a foot and a half off the ground. It contributes to a path of cooling. Since it's so hot here year round, you can allow air to circulate around all sides of the house — the top, bottom, and underneath. And also allows for easy rerouting of plumbing.

83: Can you describe your idea behind the design for these houses and how they’ll help reduce costs?

McCants: We're looking at all aspects to reduce the overall cost by cutting down on materials, which lets us cut down on labor. We’re also using electric tankless water-heaters because they’re so efficient and economical now. And we've talked about incorporating photovoltaics cells on the south side of the house, where you get more sun exposure. The roof would also be configured in that same direction. We won’t have a traditional A-frame. These houses will have shed roofs that slope in one direction. The entire roof from one side of the house to another will be sloped from the highpoint on the right, all the way down to the low point on the other.

Today's prices are a lot different than they were two or three years ago. Even though the cost of materials and labor is higher, we still have to somehow offset the difference so we're not building a small house for $200,000. We're building a small house for $130,000. That's the target price. If the house is bigger, we might sell it for $180,000.

83: What’s the size of the units you're looking to offer?

McCants: I've developed two models: a big one and a small one. We have three lots that we're trying to place those models on. The smaller one is around 1,000 square feet and the larger is around 1,600 square feet.

83: Who is your target market for these homes?

McCants: Middle-income. Any age range really but we’re thinking it would be most suitable for young professionals who want to live closer to town where they’ll have access to events and the downtown area.

83: What about Ybor is desirable for you as a developer?

McCants: Ybor has always been culturally and architecturally significant. It's a place where working class people have always lived. Instead of becoming out-priced, it could harken back to the origin of this historic neighborhood. We don't want to out-price those people who've lived here.

I took some community development courses years ago and they'd always talk about “the triple-bottom-line.” Your regular bottom line is what's good for the company and can make you money. The triple-bottom-line is good for the company, turns a profit, but also contributes an esoteric value to the community. It isn't always quantifiable in terms of dollars. We've always been interested in doing something like that. Now, we have the pieces and just need to put them in order.

83: A lot of creative industry companies have been moving into Ybor over the past few years.

McCants: That’s right! I know off hand about 12 architectural firms in the Ybor City historic district. That's a large concentration. Artists and architects are attracted to the area because of its character and history. If we want to maintain that, we have to attract people with the means to afford it. You want working and up-and-coming artists to have space to create and thrive, without worrying about a place becoming too gentrified. If you start putting up hotels and multi-million dollar condos, you're going to change the fabric of the area and the creativity will leave.

83: Right. A neighborhood often becomes gentrified because it's cheap and has character, but then by gentrifying it, the character gets stripped away.

McCants: In Atlanta, where I'm from, I've seen it change totally. I wouldn't say it ruins the neighborhood but it becomes something different.

83: You've mentioned Ybor potentially becoming a high-income neighborhood. Is that a concern of yours at all?

McCants: No, it would only end up benefiting the owner because it would raise their value. If it's smart growth, it can be done appropriately. You don't want to come in here and build mid-rise buildings. You want to keep the scale. And that's why you have the Barrio Latino Commission. They preside over this historic district and limit all that. Since that commission is in place, you know that something isn't going to come in and tip the scale and make the area drastically different.

Another story about Jerel McCants posted in 2010 in 83 Degrees: 24Hours: TAMPA - From Next American City And 83 Degrees.
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Read more articles by Dyllan Furness.

Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer and born-again Floridian based in Tampa. He covers the Tampa Bay Area’s development boom for 83 Degrees, with an eye out for sustainable and community-driven initiatives.