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'Unique' Affordable Housing Complex Opens In Immokalee

There’s a neighborhood in Southwest Florida that’s changing the way people think about affordable housing. The Economic Policy Institute rated the Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island metro area worst in the state for income inequality this year. But now, in the farmworker community of Immokalee, low-income residents have a chance to live in three-bedroom/two-bath houses. 
Hatchers Preserve is a new affordable housing complex in Immokalee. To get there, you drive past some dilapidated trailers on both sides of the street. And then, you start seeing white homes each outlined with a different color—red, green, blue. The roofs are all angled differently, too. And there are windows in unexpected places, like corners. 

"It's a very different design-- different structure. The colors are unique... Just very, very modern," says Christina Flores. 

She's in her early 30s, and she’s lived in Immokalee her whole life-- always in mobile homes until now. Christina, her husband and their three sons moved into their first house this year in Hatchers Preserve. She says she feels safer here. 

"Before it was always a concern with my boys with the weather," says Christina. "Over here, it rains and we love it because it sounds so different."

She says during a storm, it used to sound like their trailer was flying away, but in their new home it sounds "very peaceful."

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News
Abel Flores Jr. with his wife Christina Flores standing in front of their first house together.

Christina is a stay-at-home mom and Abel Flores Jr. does maintenance work for the Immokalee Water and Sewer District. They were one of the first families to move into this affordable housing complex built by the nonprofit Rural Neighborhoods. They’re 18 single-family houses for rent between $650 and $725 a month, which is not typical for this area. Residents usually can only afford mobile homes or apartments.

"Affordable housing has a connotation of being a shoebox sort of cookie cutter ‘we don’t really care what the tenants want because there’s no marketing involved-- people are desperate for decent housing,’" says Ted Hoffman, the architect who designed these homes.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News

"My idea was to make 18 individual houses that kind of look like 18 families were working with me when I designed it," he says. "And that's why each house is not parallel to the road, it's not the same color... and in some cases it's not even the same floor plan inside."

Hoffman says you can still make homes look interesting with a tight budget, like push a wall a few inches away from another one to make their colors pop out.

Kim Grant is director of Community and Human Services for Collier County. She says she’s never seen affordable housing like this in Immokalee.

"I don’t think anybody driving by would have any idea that these were designated as affordable homes," she says. 

Grant says her department helped Rural Neighborhoods get federal funding for these projects. She thinks the nonprofit can make a difference in this area.

"Is this project gonna help bring up Immokalee? Hey, one family at a time," says Grant. 

Back at the Flores family home, Christina and Abel give me a tour.

"It's definitely bigger on the inside than how it looks on the outside," said Abel. "When you come in, you can see they used all the space that they could. Very efficient."

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News

Christina says the high windows all around the home are her favorite features. 

"They provide a lot of natural sunlight, that's for sure," said Abel. "At night, you can also see the moon and the stars. It's really neat."

Abel says his wife cried when they first saw the home together. 

"She cried a lot. I held back. I was like ‘no, there’s guys here.’ You know, gotta be good. Gotta be good," he says. 

During the tour, we find Abel Flores III, their eldest son who’s 12 years old. He’s sitting on his bed playing a video game in his very own room. Before this, he shared a room with his two brothers in their trailer.

"It was just really crowded. We just had to deal with it, but now we just have a different opportunity," he says. "I really like it. It's a big difference from the old house."

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News
Abel Flores III playing video games in his own room. He used to share a room with his two brothers back in their mobile trailer.

His father, Abel Jr., says this neighborhood…

"It's a little diamond here in Immokalee for us." 

He says he hopes this community will grow-- and it might. Rural Neighborhoods just purchased two neighboring apartment complexes that are more than 20 years old. The nonprofit plans to start renovations in January. 

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.
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