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Affordable veterans housing complex approved for Newtown neighborhood

Written by on Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Sarasota Planning Board recommended approval of a veterans housing complex in the heart of Newtown, and some Newtown residents wonder if it sounds better in theory than it does in practice.

By Sophia Brown

Original Air Date: July 14, 2023


Official Transcript

Johannes Werner: The city of Sarasota Planning Board recommended approval of an affordable housing complex for veterans in the heart of Newtown, Sarasota’s African American neighborhood. Some of the neighbors, including a former city mayor and commissioner, aren’t happy about it. Sophia Brown talked to them.

Host: On Wednesday, the Sarasota City Planning Board unanimously approved the site plan for an affordable housing apartment complex, targeted specifically to low income or homeless veterans. The approval of start building this comes at a good time—Sarasota is in desperate need of more affordable housing. But there’s a catch: it will be located in a Newtown residential neighborhood, Sarasota’s historic Black community. And some Newtown community members are worried that the housing unit won’t be as beneficial in practice as it is in theory.

Vincentian Manor is the name of the veteran housing complex spearheaded by St. Vincent de Paul CARES, or SVdP for short. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international voluntary organization in the Catholic Church, and SVdP CARES is a nonprofit subsidiary that specifically works to end homelessness in 19 counties across Florida.

Michael Raposa, Chief Executive Officer of SVdP CARES, explained to the Sarasota City Planning Board that this veteran housing unit will take in those living off less than 80% of the area median income, or those that make less than $51,200 a year.

Michael Raposa: SVdP has been in the community for about 30 years, we’ve been working here solving homelessness and working with one of two of the major veteran’s service providers. So the occupants of the building, there is a veteran preference and they have to be 80% of income. So you’re dealing with the poorest of the poor. As you well know, we have a community that desperately needs attainable housing, especially those that don’t make a lot of money and that’s the target. This isn’t going to be fair market housing. This is really designed for particularly veterans with disability.

Host: Raposa added that SVdP CARES has 105 open veteran households with 51 veterans still seeking housing, and that this housing proposal “barely makes a dent in what this community’s need is.”

Vincentian Manor will be located on 1529 25th Street, south of Dr. Martin Luther King Way, an area that is zoned as Commercial Business Newtown. The manor will take up 0.43 acres and will be made up of a two story building with 10 units and an elevator, and a separate laundry facility on the property. Each unit will come with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Vincentian Manor will be able to hold up to 20 veterans, two per unit, but each unit could also have one veteran plus their family.

Members of SVdP CARES included that their plan was consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, with the Tree Ordinance and Zoning Code, and also received the Development Committee Review sign off on June 9.

Even so, some members of the planning board had questions. Daniel A. Claremont for instance, questioned whether the plot of land selected in Newtown would be large enough for up to 20 residents, especially because the manor only comes with five parking spaces.

Daniel A. Clermont: Yeah, because it’s not a super wide street for there to be a lot of—when I drove up and down there and thought about you know, if you ended up with 10 cars parked out here that could be probably quite a problem. Because you are talking about 20 people potentially living here. But you’re meeting the letter of the law, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’m just asking because we have to live with this building once it’s built.

Host: Board Member Terrill Salem also questioned whether this design is truly ADA compliant, since residents will need to be able to transport their laundry from their housing unit to the separate laundry facility.

Terrill Salem: I’m just thinking from a veteran standpoint that’s in a wheelchair, having to come downstairs and go roll out to the laundry is going to be quite a challenge.

Host: The public comment portion of the meeting featured Senior Vice President of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and former Sarasota County Commissioner, Jon Thaxton, who spoke in favor of the veteran housing plan and emphasized that it fulfilled every requirement for site plan approval.

Jon Thaxton: Bottom line is the site that we’re considering today uses the adopted comprehensive plan, the existing zoning code. No density changes, no amendments, no variances, no exceptions were needed or even requested. We intentionally chose this property because the development uses are previously vetted and had previously approved land use decision. This property is vested for exactly the use that we are subscribing. There’s no legal or reasonable use that this permit should not be granted today.

Host: He also spoke about meeting with Newtown community members in 2022 to discuss “the merits of the project.”

Board Member Salem continued to express caution but eventually put forward a motion to approve the plan, which received a unanimous “yes” from the rest of the planning board.

TS: This is a very nice project, obviously. But you know, I tend to listen with a third ear. I just hope that it’s filled with all veterans, but by right, it will be filled by whoever qualifies.

Host: However, Salem isn’t the only one being cautious. One glaring fact, that the Vencentian Manor we built on a Newtown residential street, has people like Willie Charles Shaw concerned that this plan might have more gray areas than their first appears to be.

A former mayor and veteran himself, Willie Shaw showed a WSLR reporter the land where Vincentian Manor will be built. The plot of land is in between two residential houses and across the street from even more with little wiggle room. Shaw explained that, if it were up to him, the land would be used for the revitalization of Newtown, and questions whether Newtown is really the only or the best place for this housing unit.

Willie Charles Shaw: Right now we’re dealing with the speculative buyer coming in. When you realize where we are, we’re less than a mile from downtown. Every one of our cultural amenities are within a square mile of this. It’s very much a part of us, and there are those of us who feel that veteran housing could have been placed somewhere.

Host: Shaw claims that when conversation about this veteran housing in Newtown first started, 10 veterans were supposed to be housed on the land, but that the number has increased to up to 20, potentially more if any veterans will also be living with their families. Like the planning board members, he is skeptical whether the location will offer enough space for these veterans, or provide the best resources to a disabled veteran, particularly one struggling with mental illness or addiction recovery.

WCS: This is a residential neighborhood. Here we are, this is where we’re going to put housing for 20 veterans. This is Newtown, supposedly the most volatile area in the city. Why would you put the veterans, who have come out of trauma, in an area of trauma, supposedly? We can’t be speaking out of both sides of the mouth.

Host: At this time, how many people will be living in Vincentian Manor, when they’ll move in and from where is all still uncertain. And it’s that uncertainty that has Shaw worried, both for the prospective veterans and for the Newtown residents they’ll be living alongside.

WCS: I just think, as a veteran, we should have some input, should have some idea what we’re getting into with this.

Host: This has been Sophia Brown reporting for WSLR News.


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