By Suzi Harkola
Sarasota Phoenix Correspondent
In just one more reason that Sarasotans can be grateful that Harvey Vengroff changed his mind about moving to Belize, he recently purchased the Airport Hotel, a 117-room run-down (by visitor comments) lodging facility at 4900 Tamiami Trail, with the goal of cleaning it up and converting the rooms to studio apartments with stoves and refrigerators to serve the needs of the area’s homeless families.
Apart from providing affordable housing for Sarasotans, Vengroff is working with local charities, including Women’s Resources, Harvest House, the Salvation Army and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Suncoast Inc., to find renters who have the best chance of using the lower-cost housing to move out of poverty and rebuild their lives.
The apartment complex will also have an on-site, full-time counselor. Valerie Guillory, who runs the nonprofit Trinity Without Borders. She has volunteered to assist the residents as they transition into housing.
The affordable-housing model is similar to Vengroff’s 100-unit University Row Apartments at 8440 N. Tamiami Trail. The apartments do not participate in federal, state or local government affordability programs.
Vengroff expects to charge $575 to $600 a month per unit, which includes electric and water service. The community will feature nighttime security and won’t tolerate abusive drinking and drug use, he says.
Tobin Page, a 20 year veteran of Harvey’s organization and General Manager for the property, manages the day-to-day conversion of the hotel while developing relationships with the people who have moved in and those wanting to. “I get 10 calls a day,” he said, “I could place 60 families right now if we had the rooms.”
Vengroff and Page will work with service providers to identify families and individuals who would be the best fit as tenants in the new apartment complex.
“I’m seeing people who were once on top of the world and are now down on their luck, in the dumps, literally,” Page explained. “Single parents and individuals who came from well-to-do environment and now have next to nothing. Some have left abusive relationships with their children, tried to get into several places but were consistently turned away. We provide them an apartment and, with a supportive environment of working folks around them, get them back on their feet.”
Some arrive very bitter, very down at first – almost suicidal – but have become appreciative of the opportunity this gives them to house themselves and their children at around $600 a month. “I know this was a hard fall for some of them,” Page said. “but we’re all about second chances here. Recently I got a card from one of them “You have helped me in a major way, it makes me think of a quote from MLK ‘Even if you don’t see the whole staircase, still take the first step.’ Made me feel great!”
A new building is on the drawing board. Page says they’re waiting on permits, and architects are working on drawings. “We want to move forward as quickly as possible, but the paperwork will kill you. Both Harvey and I get really pumped up about this, and then there’s a delay.
One of the biggest obstacles to mothers going to work is child care. In an earlier interview, Vengroff said he hopes to create a type of co-op child care arrangement, where the mothers work four or five days a week and watch each other’s children one day a week. The savings would be tremendous and the money could be put toward a larger
apartment or a starter home.
Vengroff looks at this project at a way to address what he calls the “crappy” North Trail gateway into Sarasota, as well as an attempt to help homeless families with comfortable, clean, modern living conditions.
“We could never buy enough hotels to solve the whole problem,” he said. “But this is a start.”