Only a few years ago, residents in the Norton Apartments complex in Clearwater, Fla., were questioning what would happen to their homes. The 48-unit project, subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had fallen into disrepair, failing three HUD inspections, and the management team remained unresponsive to resident concerns.

Residents say drug dealing on the property was rampant, and the laundry room was a hangout for criminal activity. Interiors were also in poor shape, and residents in second-floor apartments were in danger of their bedroom and bathroom floors falling in because of termite and water damage.

But after those same residents took it upon themselves to contact Gulfcoast Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal assistance to low-income eligible residents in the Tampa Bay area, everything started to turn around.

The Pinellas County Housing Authority (PCHA) purchased the property out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. With the help of the city of Clearwater and numerous other contributors, the community has since been revitalized.

The exterior structures have been repaired and painted, kitchen appliances in all units have been updated, and HVACs have been replaced along with windows and external doors. There's now a state-of-the-art recreation center and a water park next to the apartment building, and the Tampa Bay Rays recently refurbished the baseball diamonds at the recreation center.

Norton is a success story for affordable housing. But it's the community involvement in the project that Debbie Johnson, executive director of PCHA, says makes it unique.

“The level of community support for the project was tremendous,” she says. “Both Pinellas County and the city of Clearwater provided funding for the acquisition and rehab of the project. HUD was also steadfast in its commitment to help save Norton and ultimately issued a new 20-year housing assistance commitment. (HUD agreed to assign the Norton Apartments' Housing Assistance Payments contract to PCHA because the property is leased only to very low-income families who pay approximately 30 percent of their incomes for rent. Prior to the acquisition of the property by PCHA, HUD had planned to terminate the housing assistance contract on the property.) The city of Clearwater Police Department made a renewed commitment to making the community safe and free from crime.”

Norton Apartments was acquired in March 2011 for $1.9 million. The cost of the land, $430,000, was put into the Pinellas County Affordable Housing Land Trust through a land-use restriction agreement. A $1.5 million loan was obtained from the Housing Finance Authority of Pinellas County utilizing Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds for the acquisition of the structure and to cover closing costs; this loan ballooned in 2012 and was modified to lower the principal balance down to $607,490 due to a principal payment of $900,000. Bay Cities Bank provided a $925,000 loan to cover the principal pay-down and other closing costs.

An additional $1.5 million of capital is being infused for the rehab. Palm Lake Village Housing Corp., PCHA's nonprofit, provided a $539,800 loan, and the city of Clearwater provided a $550,000 loan utilizing NSP2 funds. In addition, the Pinellas County Community Development Department provided $388,000 for energy-efficient upgrades through an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The total development cost for the acquisition and rehab, which is 95 percent complete, is in excess of $3.4 million. Further rehab is planned when funding sources are made available.

Affordable housing options in the Clearwater area are limited, with the county losing 1,000 HUD-assisted units in the past decade. It's essential that the current projects stay in place, says Johnson. This is why she believes Norton residents were so adamant about fixing their community.

“It's a small community, and residents really bond with each other there, plus there's a neighborhood school nearby,” she says.

Norton Apartments are 100 percent affordable, with all units for residents at or below 50 percent of the area median income. The property comprises a diverse population: Multigenerational families living in four-bedroom units, single adults, seniors, disabled veterans, and many children.

“The transformation of Norton is a true example of how community partners, local governments, HUD, and residents themselves can come to the table together, set a common goal, and work to make it happen,” Johnson says.