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A not-so-typical developer is building an affordable housing project with a twist in Wimauma

Nonprofit that builds affordable housing in rural areas through unique USDA program sees a pointed increase in demand. "There’s just there’s been an explosion" in need, says one official.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 1:00 p.m. July 15, 2022
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Michael J. Morina, executive director, and Vanessa Josey, chief operating officer, of Florida Home Partnership an organization that develops affordable housing in rural communities. (Photo by Mark Wemple)
Michael J. Morina, executive director, and Vanessa Josey, chief operating officer, of Florida Home Partnership an organization that develops affordable housing in rural communities. (Photo by Mark Wemple)
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About 10 days before the groundbreaking, Michael Morina and Vanessa Josey are still working on getting the collateral materials together.

They’re waiting for final renderings, there is a mad dash for a site a map. And then, of course, there is the matter of getting the word out.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never talked to somebody with so little to show them,” Morina tells a visitor.

Alas these are the travails and stresses of a developer as the clock — rapidly — counts down to the moment when years of work and preparation are finally rewarded with an unveiling of plans and a ceremonial toss of dirt.

But Morina, 66, and Josey, 41. aren’t your typical developers. And their reward for all the work leading to that point isn’t monetary. Their reward is knowing people who may never have otherwise been able to buy a home will now get a place to call their own.

The pair run Florida Home Partnership, a Ruskin nonprofit working to build affordable housing and to get people living in rural Hillsborough County qualified to buy a home. The organization’s latest project, the one the pair was preparing for groundbreaking that day in mid-June, is a 38-home development in Wimauma.

Florida Home Partnership began in 1993 and, to date, it has helped about 1,000 families and individuals buy homes. It had $10.47 million in assets in its most recent fiscal year, public filings show. 

In this rural chunk of the county and state, a good number of the people Florida Homeworks with are farm workers, but as prices have gone up and owning a home has become tougher, the pool of those in need is growing.

“We have teachers, we have people in the medical field, we have police officers. It’s not, you know, the people that you think of,” says Morina, the organization’s executive director.

“We’ve done surveys and people (think) affordable housing is for Section 8 people, people on food stamps. That’s not true. I mean, we have receptionists, we have people from all walks of life. These are people that are working every day but can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“There’s just there’s been an explosion, you know. It’s unbelievable what’s happened.”


The program

While miles, and a world, away from the city centers of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Bradenton, residents in this rural corner of Hillsborough grapple with the same issues as their city brethren. Prices for homes and land have risen steeply as newcomers arrived and squeezed locals out, making it harder for people already hard-pressed to buy a home.

Florida Home’s job, says Morina, is to help match those who need help buying a home with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Self-Help Housing Program.

In its role, the organization’s work mirrors that of a typical developer. It buys land, comes up with the plans for the property, gets the development approved and finds buyers.

The big difference between it and the traditional developer is who the buyers are and their responsibilities once they’ve been approved.

Magnolia Garden Square in Wimauma is a new 38-home community being built by Florida Home Partnership. (Courtesy rendering)
Magnolia Garden Square in Wimauma is a new 38-home community being built by Florida Home Partnership. (Courtesy rendering)

While many traditional developers work on affordable housing projects, Florida Home looks for and attracts low-income workers who need help understanding what it takes to buy a home and how to get qualified. This may include how to find down payment assistance, credit repair and lessons on budgeting. It’s not uncommon that they work with a buyer for a couple of years before that person can actually qualify.

At minimum, it interviews and starts working with 10 people per week, about eight of who have credit or income issues to overcome before qualifying. As of mid-June, there were more than 100 people on a waiting list for a home.

Once buyers reach the point where they can qualify, Florida Home submits them to the USDA for funding approval. Once approved, the buyers, as part of the grant process, build the houses themselves.

Yes. You read that right. The buyers build their own homes.


You build it

The USDA Self-Help Housing Program started about 60 years ago. Florida Home, on its website, equates the program’s requirement that the buyer’s take the lead on construction to the “barn raisings of the Quakers where neighbors build their neighborhoods together.”

The construction itself is overseen by Family Construction Coordinators, who work with six to 10 families in the construction of their new homes. The new owners can bring in family and friends to help and, Florida Home says, new neighbors pitch in. The organization also provides technical assistance.

Even with the help, the new owner is required to invest at least 600 hours on building their home.

While this may be unusual, especially for those out there who need to call a guy for basic household repairs, the process creates a sense of ownership and pride, says Josey, Florida Home’s COO. 

And she knows this from first-hand experience.

Josey went through the program about 20 years ago. She was single at the time and “had no clue” on the construction process or the work required. But she persevered and wound up putting in 1,000 hours on her home. It was empowering and taught her skills she may never otherwise have acquired.  

She sold the house about seven years ago and has gone on to not only become an executive at Florida Home but to buy another house, get married and have two kids.

And when it comes to household repairs, her husband, she says, “has no clue on anything.”

“And I’m like, ‘Oh, we can do this for sure.’ I built my house.”


The new one

Florida Home’s latest project, the one staff is working to put together from the Ruskin office, is Magnolia Garden Square in Wimauma.

Wimauma skirts 301 in southern Hillsborough, near Manatee County. It’s 75% Hispanic with 32% of households living below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The median household income is $49,293, below Florida’s median household income of $57,703.

In October, Hillsborough County Commissioners approved the Wimauma Village Plan which aims, through nine goals and strategies, to “enhance community character, promote the development of a town center, promote economic development, establish design standards" and more.

Magnolia Green, being built on 7 acres on the southeast corner of 12th and Vel Streets, will make up 38 new homes, villas and townhouses, for families making 80% or below the median income.

The original plan was to build only townhomes in order to create density. But as the process moved forward, Morina and Josey realized a few more people would fit by packing in townhouses. Yet that would make it harder to create a sense of community

They were adamant Magnolia Garden needed that, that it had to be a neighborhood similar in style, though smaller, than Bayou Pass Village which Florida Home built in Ruskin. That community, just down the street from Florida Home’s office, is filled with amenities built near blocks of single-family homes that you only know are affordable housing units because someone told you.

The decision was made there needed to be more green space, as well as space for community gatherings, in order to create that sense of neighborhood. To do this, Florida Home had to sacrifice building on an island of sorts in a corner of the property, a space that would have fit four townhouses.

“But we were ready to do that. Because quality is much more important to us,” Morina says. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t we don’t profit from extra units because we don’t profit from any individual house.”  

When complete, the community, according to Florida Home, will feature native Florida plants, shaded walkways and pergolas designed to “enhance the community aspect for its residents.” In addition, individual homes will come with “healthy living features” to enhance air quality and natural light.

The community will be developed with the help of a $240,000 Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Florida Home, after the mad scramble just days before, held the ceremonial groundbreaking on Magnolia Garden June 24. And with that done, the difference between it and other developers will again be at the forefront. That’s because you won’t see rows of villas coming out of the ground at breakneck speed. What you’ll see, instead, is families, individuals and neighbors working together to build a community the old-fashioned way, together.

The hope is for construction to begin by end of the year.

As for Morina and Josey, they’re already looking at what’s next.


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