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Developer and church team up to build affordable housing in Hillsborough

A partnership between a real estate developer and a local church is leading to the construction of 140 affordable housing units for seniors.

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The perception commerce and religion shouldn’t mix, which at least dates back to the story of Jesus tossing the money changers from the temple, is getting tested in Hillsborough County.

That’s where a local church and a Tampa real estate developer have joined forces to build an affordable housing complex for senior citizens in a rural part of the county where the options are scarce, and the need is great. This complex will be built on the church’s property.

Whether this is a sign that the money changers can have a place in a church or whether it’s a one off where interests just happen to align doesn’t make a difference. What does make a difference is the two disparate organizations came together to solve a vexing problem not only affecting rural Hillsborough but counties and cities statewide. 

“As priests we go out to visit people who are in their homes, maybe by themselves, single residents, or couples who are elderly, and we hear stories about how it was becoming very difficult to live because of the expenses they’re facing,” says Rev. Edison Bernavas, the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

“That gave me an idea. Why not start something on our property, like affordable, decent housing for people who are elderly so that they could live in a decent home and they don’t have to be worried about living day to day.”

The partnership that’s developed from the initial idea is between Blue Sky Communities, a Tampa affordable housing developer, and St. Francis. The two, thanks to an agreement forged between the company and the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, are building a 140-unit senior housing development on a 20-acre parcel owned by the local parish.


Rev. Edison Bernavas, the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church joined the church in 2017.
Rev. Edison Bernavas, the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church joined the church in 2017.

The need

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is on S.R. 579 in Mango, about 1.5 miles south of Interstate 4. It sits between athletic fields and an elementary school. A Walmart, Publix and Aldi are all within walking distance, as are a diverse mix of national and local retailers and restaurants.

The church building itself, which sits slightly elevated in the middle of the property, is almost dwarfed by all the land around it.

Bernavas became pastor of the church in 2017.

One of the first things that interested him when taking over was how much land there was. Parishes, Bernavas says, tend to have smaller properties. He was intrigued and began asking around.

What he learned from parishioners who’d been at St. Francis since it opened in 1987 is the founding pastor, Christopher Fitzgerald, had wanted to develop the property and establish affordable housing for the elderly. In never materialized.

But the idea was a good one, Bernavas says.

The lack of affordable housing options in Hillsborough, as in much of the state, has become an even bigger problem in the past couple of years as migration into the area has driven home prices and rents up. This phenomenon is creating a hole for many residents who are finding themselves priced out of their neighborhoods and with limited opportunities elsewhere. One of the hardest hit populations is the elderly. who largely live on fixed incomes and struggle to find, or keep, decent and affordable housing.

The county is trying to address the demand, with Hillsborough County Affordable Housing spending more than $54 million in 2021 to assist 24,324 households through its programs and projects. Of that, $24.5 million went toward housing programs in the form of down payment assistance for first time buyers, construction of multifamily complexes and single-family homes and rehabilitation for apartments and houses.

But there is only so much local government can do.

Seeing the need, Bernavas began talking to different people and organizations in the community about transforming the church’s property into affordable housing. He was eventually introduced to Blue Sky.

The developer, founded in 2012, has experience working on affordable housing projects, having completed more than 20 complexes over the years. Just last month it received $10.5 from St. Petersburg to build 151 new units in the city.

“We knew those guys were very reputable developers,” Bernavas says. “And they worked with several projects in Florida. With due diligence and conversation and discussion, we decided to partner with Blue Sky to do this project.”

Shawn Wilson, Blue Sky’s president and CEO, says it got involved with the church because Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg was interested in creating affordable housing around different church properties. The company came onboard and looked at several churches, eventually finding that St. Francis was a location that made sense to build on.

That was a couple of years ago, before the pandemic. Since then, Bernavas and Blue Sky have worked on the design, received proper zoning and lined up the financing.

Wilson says the demand for affordable housing is so great that the development can’t be built soon enough.

Earlier this year, Blue Sky opened the first phase of SkyWay Lofts in St. Petersburg — with a list of 2,000 people waiting for a shot at 65 units. He expects that when the Mango development opens in about two years. 2,000 elderly people will sign up for one of the 140 apartments.

“We have enormous waiting lists at all of our current properties,” Wilson says. “The need is just greater than it ever has been in my career, which spans 30 years.”


A partnership between a real estate developer and a local church is leading to the construction of 140 affordable housing units for seniors. (Courtesy photo)
A partnership between a real estate developer and a local church is leading to the construction of 140 affordable housing units for seniors. (Courtesy photo)

The (partial) solution

The four-story apartment complex will be built on a piece of land adjacent to the existing church and will be called Casa di Francesco.

According to Blue Sky, 15% of the units will be reserved for people 62-years-old and older who earn below 30% of the area median income. The rest will go to those earning below 60% of the area median income. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the median household income in Hillsborough is $60,566.

“With the economy, this need became more relevant and more challenging for people because people live paycheck to paycheck,” Bernavas says. “We got a lot calls for help because they cannot afford to pay their electric bill or to pay their water bill, cannot afford to pay their rent. As this started off it has become more of a dream for those people. This is 140 units which is going to be a great help to a lot of people who cannot stay in their homes. This will really help them.”

Once built, Blue Sky says it will work with Catholic Charities to create programs and amenities for tenants, including on-site literacy lessons and a no-cost program where building residents can be checked on daily.

Residents also will have access to providers who offer light housekeeping, grocery shopping and laundry services with the property management team helping with scheduling. And, Blue Sky says, management will be available 24 hours year-round to take care of any maintenance, security or health-related issues.

The project is currently in the permitting stage and there are some government approvals still needed, but the expectation is for construction to begin the middle of next year and for the work to be complete by the summer of 2024.

As for the cost to develop the property, Casa di Francesco has received over $5 million in funding from the Florida Housing and Finance Corp/ and over $14 million in tax credit equity from Raymond James, according to Blue Sky.

And Wilson says the company has “several layers of financing” being finalized, but all the affordable housing financing piece are in place.

“I think that the church has really conducted themselves in a very businesslike manner, which is great for us,” he says.

“Because at the end of the day, real estate development is a business. And the fact that that we can operate as a business but keeping in mind the community benefits and the social aspect of it, then that’s what makes for a successful development like this one.”



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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