'A transformational experience.' Auburndale looks to bring in more Habitat for Humanity homes

The Ledger
The Ledger

Sonja Groover lived in a crime-riddled neighborhood in a house too small for her large family.

It wasn't a safe place to raise five teenage children and she desperately wanted out. But with a low-income and a shortage of affordable housing options in Polk County, the single mother had nowhere else to go.

"I lived on a corner with a lot of drug activity," she recalled. "Across the street there was a corner store where everybody hung out and there were days I couldn't even park in my own yard because people were out there serving and doing drugs. But it's all I could afford."

Groover felt like she was trapped in this rental unit for six years until she was rescued by Habitat for Humanity. Her application with the East Polk chapter of the nonprofit was approved and she helped build her own home in a quiet Auburndale neighborhood. In 2018, she moved in and has been there ever since.

Her residence is one of five Habitat for Humanity homes that have been built in this community off Preston Drive in recent years. More are on the way.

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A major need for more affordable housing options in Florida

On Nov. 2, the Polk County Commission voted to allocate $324,659.68 in federal grant money to the city of Auburndale so it can acquire more land to plop down additional affordable homes.

The goal is simple: Help more people like Groover who have limited options.

"There’s nothing quite like seeing a family receive these homes," said Mark Ferreira, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of East Polk County. "We know that owning your home is such a transformational experience. You're talking about housing security and a sense of belonging. That’s what it means to be a homeowner, and it's reversing generational poverty cycles."

There's a major need for more affordable housing options, like these, locally and across Florida.

Study: Lakeland has the most over-priced housing market in Florida

A recent study conducted by two professors at at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University found that Lakeland has the most over-priced housing market in Florida.

Countywide, the average rent for a one-bedroom home is $978 per month, the average home costs $282,020 while 14% of residents live at or below the national poverty level, according to U.S. census data.

In Florida, many renters don't make enough to afford an apartment at market rate and there aren't enough affordable units to accommodate low-income households.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, households need to earn an income of $51,619 in order to afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rate.

The Sunshine State needs an additional 384,783 affordable rental units to house all of its low-income households, according to the same report.

County uses federal grant money to address problem

Each year, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) disperses federal grant money to states, counties and cities aimed at helping low income residents with housing, suitable living environments and economic opportunities.

Polk received $4.1 million in this Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money from HUD on Oct. 1 for next fiscal year.

With help from this federal grant program, Polk County and cities have been working to add to the stock of affordable housing options.

"The need is so great," said County Commission Chairwoman Marta Santiago. "There are a lot of families that need these kind of homes, this kind of help to move forward. There are so many people we’d love to help. This is not only a priority for me but for the entire board."

Some recent examples include:

► The county allocated $125,000 in Community Block Development Grant money to help Talbot House Ministries, a nonprofit, open the Vermont Place Apartments in Lakeland. The complex includes 16 apartment units for low- and very-low income working adults, veterans and the disabled.

► Lakeland-based nonprofit Gospel Inc. received $1 million in CBDG grant funding for a mobile home and cottage project in Lakeland called Gospel Village. The former mobile home park is being turned into a housing and work community for those who are experiencing homelessness.

► Four new homes are also slated for construction in Lake Wales through a contract with Keystone Challenge Fund, which received about $490,000 in funding for the project. This new construction will add four, three-bedroom, two-bath homes on B Street in Lake Wales.

Latest effort: More Habitat homes in Auburndale

When the city of Auburndale opened the doors to a community center on Preston Drive roughly a decade ago, the building was surrounded by a number of vacant lots.

City officials saw an opportunity.

"We wanted to see a vibrant neighborhood," said Amy Palmer, the city's Assistant Manager. "We saw how many vacant lots there were, we thought it would be nice to fill those with more affordable housing."

The city secured county CDBG money to purchase property for $20,000 to $22,000 and then tabbed Habitat for Humanity to build affordable homes.

Ferreira said he'd like to see more cities in Polk pursue similar projects.

"I'd love to see more communities like Auburndale put properties into our hands as we work to increase the stock of affordable housing. Auburndale is leading the way on that in our area," he said.

He added, "The amazing thing we are able to accomplish is we can take property where nothing good is happening, we can build a home for a family in need and make them homeowners."

Groover couldn't be more grateful for the city pursuing this vision.

At her former home in Winter Haven, where she was surrounded by crime, she paid $740 a month for rent.

In her new home in Auburndale, her mortgage is $491 a month.

"I'm so blessed," she said Wednesday in the shade of a large Oak tree outside the four-bedroom, two-bath home. She wore her work attire, a Winn-Dixie apron, and a smile.

"This means a whole lot to me," she said. "I could not be more grateful. I encourage this for a lot of people; it's a nice program."

A South Carolina native, Dustin covers Polk County government and county-wide issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter @LLDustin_Wyatt.

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