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Deal to fix troubled complex falls through, adding to PBC housing woes

Residents will remain at a frequently cited, dilapidated housing complex in Belle Glade now that a deal for its sale has fallen through.

Grand Lake Apartments — cited in 2015 for a variety of health and safety concerns including unsafe or non-existent staircases, rodent infestation, active wasp nests, mold, broken windows, garbage, open sewer cleanout pipes and discarded mattresses and tarps in abandoned swimming pools — was to be sold to a developer that planned to raise $50 million in public and private money for a complete rebuild of the tattered complex.

But that deal has fallen through, leaving officials with a set of unpalatable choices: resettling the roughly 130 households who still live there or repairing some units and using taxpayer-financed housing vouchers to help residents remain in a complex many believe needs to be torn down and rebuilt.

With no place to resettle the families who live in Grand Lake, officials with Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Housing Authority and the complex owner, Miami-based developer Ytech International, have chosen to repair units and keep residents there. The plan is to eventually rebuild the complex.

Keeping residents at Grand Lake is not a choice warmly embraced by Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Belle Glade.

McKinlay was initially angered by the prospect of having residents remain at Grand Lake, but, after reviewing options with housing authority officials and others at Ytech, she said keeping residents in their units is the best choice.

“I wish I had housing inventory that I could move these people into, but I don’t,” she said. “They could condemn the buildings and force everyone to move and families would be on the street. My choice is putting them on the street or fix the units.”

The travails at Grand Lake are only the latest housing problems in Belle Glade, one of the poorest communities in the county.

A few days before Christmas, 40 families were told to leave a pair of buildings that were condemned. Some of them have been resettled in other locations, putting a significant dent in the county’s emergency food and shelter fund.

The health and safety violations at Grand Lake almost forced the resettlement of 200 people only days before the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year.

Belle Glade’s housing problems add to the complexity of the county’s overall challenge with housing, much of which is so expensive residents struggle to make ends meet.

“There is a housing shortage in Palm Beach County, not just in Belle Glade,” said the city’s mayor, Steve Wilson. “We need to address it.”

The county has a workforce housing program designed to encourage the construction of housing affordable to middle income wage earners such as teachers, firemen and law enforcement officers. But developers are allowed to pay a fee in lieu of including such housing in their plans, which typically include higher-end units beyond the financial reach of middle-income wage earners.

Developers have frequently availed themselves of that fee option. In the next few months, commissioners are expected to discuss ways to change the program to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

If changes to that program are made, they won’t affect plans for Grand Lake, a 384-unit complex located at 2000 S. Main St.

About two-thirds of the units are unoccupied. Many have broken windows, rusted staircases and mold.

The proposed sale of the complex had been hailed as a major victory for the residents, for the city and for the county.

“If this deal goes through, it would be a wonderful thing for the community,” McKinlay said when the deal was reported in The Palm Beach Post.

It is not clear why the deal has fallen through. Housing Authority Executive Director Van Johnson did not return a call seeking comment. Officials at Ytech also did not return a call for comment.

The erstwhile buyer, Miami-based Housing Trust Group, would not answer specific questions about why the deal fell apart.

In an emailed statement, HTG President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rieger said: “The Glades has a tremendous need for safe, clean and affordable housing and Housing Trust Group remains committed to working with state and local officials to bring more affordable housing to the community.”

McKinlay and Wilson said the deal could have faltered because of an inability to get commitments for federal housing vouchers, which augment what poor residents pay to rent the units.

Without those vouchers, getting financing to build low-income housing is nearly impossible, they said.

McKinlay said repairing some of the units is an imperfect — and temporary — solution.

“I have a commitment with the property owner and with the housing authority that this will be a rebuild,” she said. “I want this project to be a rebuild. I’m not going to be satisfied if this is just a Band-aid.”

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