$21 million mistake delays Tampa Housing Authority’s West River project

Rendering of the West River project, which includes The Boulevard at West River. The Tampa Housing Authority won a state tax credit award worth $21 million over 10 years to help fund the apartment complex. But it has now been disqualified after a competing developer, Blue Sky Communities, identified mistakes in its application and challenged the award in court. Blue Sky will now get the tax credits to go toward The Preserve at Sabal Park, a 144-unit workforce housing complex planned for Williams Road.

TAMPA — Errors in an application have cost the Tampa Housing Authority a 10-year, $21 million tax credit that was earmarked to help build much-needed affordable housing in Tampa’s ambitious West River revitalization project.

The credits were awarded in May to The Boulevard at West River, an apartment block that would include 200 affordable housing units.

But the Florida Housing Finance Corporation last week reversed its decision after an administrative judge ruled that mistakes in the Housing Authority’s application should disqualify it from the award.

Instead, the tax credits will now go to Blue Sky Communities, a private developer that challenged the award in court. Its application to build a 144-unit workforce housing project in unincorporated Hillsborough County earned the same score as the Housing Authority’s but lost out through a lottery.

The setback will mean at least a year’s delay for The Boulevard project, said Leroy Moore, Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer.

The city’s project is just west of downtown Tampa, at Main Street and Willow Avenue. The county’s Williams Road project is north of Broadway Avenue and east of Interstate 75.

The Housing Authority’s application fell short in two areas, according to the judge who reviewed Blue Sky’s challenge.

It failed to list all of the development officers of its development partner, Banc of America Community Development Corp. It also overstated the level of affordable housing development experience of the bank’s development officer, Eileen Pope.

Moore said the application was handled by Affordable Housing Consulting, a real estate development company based in Tallahassee. Officials from the company did not return calls seeking comment.

The firm receives performance bonuses based on awards received.

It used the same information that had been used on other successful applications, Moore said. He described Florida Housing’s decision as bad policy, noting that it would produce 144 new housing units instead of 200.

“Those were minor irregularities,” he said. “They have had similar omissions before.”

But the administrative judge ruled that the errors were not “minor irregularities that can be waived.”

The application listed three developments on which it stated Pope served as principal. That included a 1998 project in Charlotte. But at that time, Pope was only a regional property manager for the Charlotte Housing Authority, a position that did not meet the standard to be judged as a principal.

Moore said there is no question that Pope, who has worked with the Housing Authority on its Encore project, has the necessary experience. Future applications will be corrected, he said.

“It should have been tighter and it will be going forward,” he said.

The first corrected application may be another request for tax credits for The Boulevard. The Florida Housing Finance Corp. awards credits every year for developers and agencies in Florida’s largest communities as an incentive to build affordable housing. The credits can be sold to raise money for construction costs.

The disqualification has exacerbated strained relations between the city and the county after the state last year decided to give local governments more say over what projects receive tax credits.

The theory behind the change was that local governments could better decide which areas had the greatest need for low-cost housing.

But that didn’t work well in Hillsborough where the city and the county recommended different projects.

County officials initially told City of Tampa officials they would support the Housing Authority’s project with the understanding that the Blue Sky project, which would be built just north of Broadway Avenue, would get the recommendation the following year.

But in December, then Assistant County Administrator Eric Johnson told commissioners to ignore the recommendation in front of them and to make the Preserve at Sabal Park the county’s recommendation.

“They reneged on the deal and this is what happens,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “It’s just a continuation of some of the ongoing issues and challenges we have with them.”

In addition to providing fewer affordable housing units, Moore said that the county’s project will not provide as much benefit to low-income families as the West River project.

“It’s away from jobs, away from cultural amenities and transportation alternatives,” he said.

But that is disputed by Blue Sky officials.

The site is close to the Sabal Park business area where there are large employers including Citi, said CEO and President Shawn Wilson.

And it is served by a HART bus stop, he added.

The project is expected to break ground in the summer of 2018 and begin accepting residents in 2019.

The apartment will be income restricted. Rent for 29 apartments will be between $384 to $518 a month for very low-income families. The remaining 115 units will cost between $608 to $829 a month.

Wilson said the decision to challenge the Housing Authority’s award was made by his company with no involvement from the county.

“For an application to fail to disclose all the principals really puts in jeopardy the integrity of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. rules and regulations,”he said.

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

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