Escambia County commissioners voted Thursday night to allow county staff to start negotiations with the owners of the flood-plagued Forest Creek Apartments to buy the complex, but the commission wants to make sure the federal housing vouchers granted to the complex are part of the sale.
The original proposal was to make an offer of $10 million to the owner of the complex so the county could purchase it and begin relocating residents. The property would eventually be turned into a flood retention pond to mitigate flooding in the Warrington area.
Commissioner Doug Underhill said he thought the $10 million number was probably too high and the real value of the property was tied the federal vouchers it receives for its low-income residents.
Underhill made an alternative proposal, which was unanimously approved, to authorize county staff to negotiate with Forest Creek, contingent on FEMA paying the grant to the county and FEMA signing off on the final sale price.
The final contract would still need to come before the County Commission before being finalized.
The apartment complex has a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing vouchers until 2030, according to county staff.
“If the vouchers do not transfer with the sale, then we’re just creating the investment pool for the owner to just build another one these, and I’m very opposed to that,” Underhill said. “I don’t know what the political circumstances were that created a system in which the vouchers stay with the facility instead of the needy citizen. I’m somewhat opposed to Section 8 housing anyway, but this is insane in my opinion.”
HUD’s vouchers guarantee Forest Creek’s owners, Marquis Management, a Plano, Texas-based company, rent of $745 a month for one-bedroom units, $833 a month for two-bedroom units and $953 for three-bedroom units, according to county staff.
Residents pay what they can depending on their incomes and the federal formula, and the rest is paid by HUD.
“If something comes back to us for approval and does not involve those vouchers, I’m pretty sure I’m not there,” Underhill said. “It would have to have an awful lot of icing on it for me to accept something like that.”
Laura Merritt, a former resident of Forest Creek, told commissioners she was evicted this summer as retaliation for speaking out against the conditions at the apartments, where she said residents deal with mold problems and other issues from the flooding.
“It’s time to stop putting a Band-Aid on Forest Creek and let’s do what we’ve got to do,” Merritt said.
Commissioner Steven Barry asked county staff how the system worked and was told that the vouchers are done with a contract between HUD and the development, rather than individuals. Residents apply to the development for the rent assistance, rather than the public agency.
“It doesn’t seem like a very healthy situation, I mean in general,” Barry said.
“I think you’re absolutely right,” May said to Barry. “I think that’s when I cry and that’s why we’ve yelled (about) this. It’s unfortunate to have people live in those conditions. At $945 a month, it’s almost criminal.”
May said there is sometimes confusion about the difference between public housing and Section 8 housing.
“People say, oh that’s public housing,” May said. “That’s not public housing. It’s a private developer being subsidized by vouchers.”
May said he was supportive of Underhill’s proposal to negotiate for the purchase of the property.
“I don’t want to send any indication to the developer that our position is going to be a position of weakness because at the end of the day, we don’t have to buy,” May said. “We do have a responsibility to relocate those people.”
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.