Heath Easley was at a loss for words.
Easley was the first resident to pick up keys last week at the recently completed Gateway of St. Joe apartment community.
The income-restricted housing units had been sought after for years by local community leaders and now the wish has come true.
"I don't even know what to say," Easley said. "I just can't explain it; I've been waiting, just anticipating."
Easley, a single father of four, had been living in a motel with his children but now has a brand new home.
"I finally have a place that I feel happy to bring my kids to," Easley said. "To come home."
The place to call home wasn't the only thing that Easley is happy about.
The working dad is also excited to get established in a new community.
"I've been wanting to actually get established here," said Easley, who was born and raised in Bonifay. "I've got a job here so it's going to be a lot better. The kids go to school here. It was meant for me to be here, I just had to wait for the opportunity."
Easley isn't the only case of an overwhelmed new resident.
According to Roni Coppock, the community manager for Royal American Management, a new resident that saw her new home recently was also overwhelmed.
"Yesterday I had someone come in and she started crying because she was able to bring her daughter to a home," Coppock said.
The path bringing Gateway of St. Joe to fruition has been a long one.
The Paces Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Gateway of St. Joe, first presented plans for the community to the Port St. Joe City Commission at a meeting held in August 2013.
At that meeting, representatives from the Smyrna, GA-based organization proposed 50-70 townhome style homes funded through tax credits and built on land that was deeded to the city by St. Joe Company for affordable housing.
With the blessing from the city, officials from Paces sought the appropriate tax credits but came up short.
Nearly a year later, Paces officials returned to the city to relight the project, this time through a $6 million HOME grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with a $300,000 match through the county from its State Housing Initiative Program (SHIP).
According to Paces officials at the time, the 72 proposed townhomes were converted to 50 apartment units because of the lack of funding.
In July the following year, Paces held a community town hall where they were questioned about the change to apartments and possible impacts to the surrounding community.
Acknowledging that they could have been more transparent with the change from townhomes to apartments, Paces officials pushed for a timely execution of the project to take advantage of available funds.
That pushed seemed to have worked and construction on the project got underway in 2016.
That construction was completed by Royal American Construction and the property will now be managed by Royal American Management, both companies out of Bay County and founded in 1968.
Royal American manages over 200 large rental properties the United States, with 156 of those properties in Florida.
Staff for Royal American on hand was excited to get the first move-ins completed.
A total of 22 of the 50 units have been rented out, but Royal American staff expects that number to jump quickly with the completion.
“There are not a lot of apartment communities to compare it to,” said Brittany Walsh, the director of marketing for Royal American. “It’s so new and so different that it is hard for people to commit when they can’t see something.”
Now with the buildings completed and construction crews in cleanup mode, Royal American is ready to show off the long- awaited project.
With two-, three- and four-bedroom units, Walsh is confident that potential residents will be blown away.
Citing the lack of affordable housing, Walsh believes that Gateway at St. Joe will fill a great need for families and for the community.
“A place that people can feel good about calling home and at a price they can afford,” Walsh said.
The complex is established under strict rules from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as far as whom and who can not rent an apartment and at what cost.
The reduced cost doesn’t mean reduced amenities for residents, with units coming equipped with a dishwasher and laundry hookups.
The broader Gateway community will feature a laundry room, fitness center, computer room and community room that will feature various programs.
The staff at Royal American has also opened up the community spaces for use by local law enforcement if they need a space to do paperwork or exercise.
On the first move-in day both new residents and staff were filled with emotions.
“I think it’s very emotional for people when it becomes an option for them,” said Walsh. “This is more in line with the standard of living that people can afford.”
One of the first U-Hauls to back in belonged to the Myrick family.
With the opportunity for affordable housing, Jennifer Myrick said that the time was now for her and husband, Joseph, along with their two children, to escape the fast-paced living of greater Atlanta.
“Better schools, low crime, from where we came from it’s like 10 times better,” Jennifer Myrick said.
Joseph believes the move will give him the opportunity to get a career started and have enough space for his family.
“It is definitely a great opportunity to get something, that otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to afford,” Joseph Myrick said. “I’m real appreciative.”
As the key turned last week, the Myrick family couldn’t hold back the smiles.
As his two children went from room to room, Joseph Myrick leaned against the kitchen counter and just smiled, happy to have a place to call home.