PLANT CITY, Fla. — The large garage is empty. The firetrucks are gone. Cobwebs drape on the coat rack where firefighters used to hang their jackets and helmets.
By every indication, the old fire station on Coronet Road near Plant City is now a relic of the past — a deserted building past the point of utility.
But as Ernest Coney, Jr. walked through the empty, musty rooms Thursday morning, his excitement was palpable. It’s here, in the abandoned fire station, where a big idea is taking shape.
“We’re really bringing all the community together to … really solve this issue,” said Coney, the CEO of the Corporation to Develop Communities (CDC) of Tampa.
The issue he referred to is one sweeping across Tampa Bay and becoming more dire each day. Regionally, the price for housing continues to climb as the supply shrinks.
“Almost every one out of every other person is having an issue with their affordability of either rent or buying a home,” said Coney. “We think about just five years ago our average homes were probably around $150,000, and now it’s double that, and the same thing has happened to rent in the past few months.”
Thanks to a new partnership with Hillsborough County, Coney’s team will soon start using the old fire station, a 4,229-square-foot space, to build modular homes that are affordable to people from low to moderate-income levels.
“Everyone from a janitor who’s working, being able to have the dignity of owning his own home, all the way up to a school teacher or a firefighter who’s on the frontlines for us doing everything that they can to make sure that our kids are better, that we are safe — that we also have the opportunity to provide housing for them as well that they can afford,” Coney said.
According to Coney, the homes could be built in various sizes and price points.
Cheryl Howell, Hillsborough County’s Director of Affordable Housing, said, once they’re built, the homes will be placed in “neighborhood revitalization strategy areas” across the county.
“Those are our hardest-hit areas. They have the lowest level of education. They have the highest level of unemployment. They have the highest levels of poverty,” she said. “We don’t just have an affordable housing problem; we have an affordable living problem.”
According to Coney, the next eight months will serve as a trial period, but he hopes the new assembly line will soon be churning out dozens of homes.
“We can produce anywhere from 50 to 100 homes, and then, if things go really well, of course, we’ll be looking to expand into a much larger factory,” he said.
The initiative will also offer career training to those it employs. According to Hillsborough County, if the pilot program with CDC of Tampa proves successful, "the contract includes an option for two 2-year contract extensions, with lease payments to the county of about $2,100 a month.”