Two thousand public housing residents were uprooted from West Tampa. Here’s where they went

Two thousand public housing residents were uprooted from West Tampa. Here’s where they went

Retired mechanic and construction worker Linell Donald photographed at his studio apartment at J.L. Young Apartments, a public housing complex for seniors on Florida Avenue. Donald, 64, is among roughly 2,000 residents who were relocated from North Boulevard Homes, which is being demolished as part of an urban renewal project. [CHRIS O’DONNELL | Times ]

TAMPA — North Boulevard Homes was old, crime-ridden and dilapidated; it was also Willistine Zimmerman’s world.

She had friends close by and a porch to sit on for conversation and company.

It’s not like that now.

None of her friends live close to her new home at Cinnamon Cove Apartments in the University Area. A manager told the 53-year-old that she can’t put a chair outside her front door.

"It’s like you’re in prison here," she said. "They don’t want you outside."

Until the bulldozers moved in, more than 2,000 people lived in North Boulevard Homes, an aging West Tampa public housing complex of about 820 military-barrack style apartments.

Over an 18-month period, they were all relocated one way or another.

Seven tenants died and 25 were evicted. The rest are now scattered across Tampa Bay and as far as Brooklyn, N.Y., Philadelphia, and Gulfport, Miss.

Most didn’t go far and ended up trading one low-income neighborhood for another, an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found. About 52 percent of families ended up in either East Tampa, Sulphur Springs or the University Area, communities with some of Hillsborough County’s highest poverty rates.

That was also the path taken by residents uprooted when other Tampa public housing complexes such as Central Park Village, Ponce de Leon and College Hill Homes were demolished, said Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida.

Even with a choice between different public housing or Section 8 housing, available accommodations tend to be clustered in the same neighborhoods.

"This shows where the most low rent areas are," Greenbaum said.

About 115 families moved to the 33604 ZIP code area that includes Sulphur Springs. One quarter of residents there are at or below the federal poverty levels, according to census data.

More than 50 moved to the University Area, northwest of the University of South Florida. About half of that area’s children aged 5 and under live in poverty.

Three-quarters of residents remained within the City of Tampa limits, according to the analysis, which is based on 677 new addresses supplied by the Tampa Housing Authority.

Of those in the city, about 50 exchanged the Housing Authority’s oldest accommodation for its newest, the Encore project on the edge of downtown Tampa.

RELATED: A Tampa community slides into history as last residents depart

The agency spent more than $1.1 million on relocation, paying an average of $1,200 per resident for moving costs.

Case managers were assigned to help people adjust to their new locations and to help with issues like access to grocery stores, jobs and family. As was the case at North Boulevard, residents can sign up for training and education to help them find work or better-paying jobs.

"Now that we’ve done this over and over again, residents know this is an opportunity to move to a much better place in their life and be more self sufficient," said David Iloanya, the agency’s director of real estate development.

But studies conducted after previous relocations show some residents invariably feel isolated after losing touch with friends. Others end up with no direct bus route to work.

The latest moves were complicated by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit’s overhaul of its bus network in November, which resulted in many bus routes being redrawn.

"I’m concerned about the mobility and access of households who have been relocated, especially with the recent HART route changes and decreases in services," said Beverly Ward, a retired University of South Florida anthropology professor who conducted a study of Hillsborough residents displaced over a nine-year period for the Housing Authority in 2007. "Also, rents in Hillsborough County are expensive."

Zimmerman said her new apartment has been a struggle.

Her rent went up $25 per month, a significant hike for someone who is on disability due to a heart condition.

She relies on her daughter to drive her to the grocery store. Friends who were a daily part of her life are far away.

"It’s been really hard but I see them every now and then," she said.

North Boulevard included Mary Bethune high rise apartments, an eight-story building for seniors. Some ended up at the 405-unit J.L. Young Apartments on North Florida Avenue for residents aged 55 and up.

Linell Donald, 64, lives on the second floor of the complex in a cramped studio apartment. His front door is halfway down a long windowless breeze-block corridor with motion-detection operated fluorescent lighting.

Breeze-blocks are part of the interior decor too.

He likes that he’s now within walking distance of a Dollar General, a Kmart and fast-food restaurants. His rent remained the same and he said he feels safe.

The demise of North Boulevard was an opportunity for many of its residents to escape a public complex. More than 60 percent chose to take vouchers to live in privately owned Section 8 housing. The vouchers can be used anywhere in the country.

Latoya Escourse, 33, opted for a voucher. She and her four children moved to a three-bedroom home in Temple Terrace.

It has a big garage, a fenced-in backyard, tiled floors and an open-space living room. The home is at the end of a quiet road, so she put up a basketball hoop for her children.

"Everything I used to think ‘this is what I want,’ I literally have," she said.

Still, she sometimes pines for the friendliness of her old community, where she lived for nine years. It was where her older children grew up. A place where neighbors were always willing to help by donating furniture or giving her and her kids a ride.

"I miss a lot of people there," she said. "Everyone was like family."

About 200 families from North Boulevard remained in public housing. Iloanya, the Housing Authority official, said some of them are wary of moving to the private sector where they may face stricter rules about property upkeep and rent deadlines.

"The private sector will be more strict, so they choose to hang around with us," he said.

The replacement project for North Boulevard is called West River. Displaced residents will have first right of refusal to the public housing units that are part of the planned mixed-income walkable community.

If previous relocation projects are any guide, only about 10 percent of people will return, Iloanya said. And it could be up to four years before new housing at West River is ready.

"With that amount of time, people take root somewhere else and don’t want to move again," Iloanya said.

Joseph Lentz isn’t sure what West River will look like, but he plans to ask to go back to West Tampa. His new home is a studio apartment in J.L. Young. He spends most of his days sitting on a bed in a darkened room watching a small television perched on a desk.

The retired chemical company worker, 84, said North Boulevard felt more like a community. He misses the people there, including the Housing Authority staff that looked out for him.

"If you have to move you have to," he said. "But it’s not quite as good as it was."

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

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