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Aid coming for foreclosure-prone neighborhoods

TAMPA — The house on Emma Street, like so many others, is a snapshot of the nation's mortgage crisis.

Once a promising investment, the place is buried in knee-deep piles of trash and occasionally home to vagrants. The city has condemned it. Gary Ellsworth thinks it will be torn down. He worries that more will follow.

'"I think the problem is just going to get worse before it gets better," said Ellsworth, of South Seminole Heights.

Interbay Neighborhood Association president Jorge Ugarte suspects a nearby property is abandoned, but he hasn't asked for city help with neighborhood beautification.

"We know government funds are low," he said.

That might be true in general. But the city stands to receive millions to help neighborhoods hardest hit by foreclosures.

This past summer, the federal government made $3.9-billion available to local governments under a new neighborhood stabilization program.

Locally, that breaks down to $13.6-million for the city and $19.1-million for Hillsborough County.

While foreclosures exist everywhere, officials had to pinpoint neighborhoods most in need of assistance.

Ellsworth and Ugarte may have to wait, because Sulphur Springs and parts of West Tampa are the city neighborhoods in line for what amounts to a rescue of 110 to 120 homes.

County officials, in their program, have targeted Orient Park, Palm River, Clair Mel and Progress Village, along with the University of South Florida area. The city and county plan to work together in the USF area, which overlaps the border.

The County Commission will review the county plan Thursday; the city's plan comes before the council Nov. 20.

The program is designed to work like this: Local governments buy foreclosed properties from banks that are eager to dispose of them. The properties are then deeded to organizations that perform the necessary repairs and rehabilitation before selling them or, in some cases, renting them out.

The county plans to work with nonprofit organizations, while the city will partner with both nonprofits and private-sector firms.

Twenty-five percent of the money must serve low-income households, and some arrangements can be lease-to-own.

Mortgages are fixed, housing counseling is required and the home buyers start out with equity to prevent them from becoming "upside-down,'' or owing more than the house is worth.

There will be safeguards to minimize the risk that the new home buyers will get into trouble.

"We have a very good track record for first-time home buyers in our programs,'' said Cynthia Miller, the city's director of growth management and development services.

In addition to subtle differences in the city and county programs, there is a difference of focus.

The county has identified a second tier of communities to address as the new homeowners in the first wave repay the loans and replenish the fund. That group includes Town 'N Country, Gibsonton and Plant City.

City officials, however, say they have plenty of work to do in the core areas.

"I think Sulphur Springs looks like the bulls-eye,'' said Sharon West, the city's manager of housing and community development.

In other neighborhoods, community leaders continue to look for creative solutions as blighted homes dot the landscape.

"If you've got an abandoned house near you, I would be mowing the lawn and picking up garbage," said Ellsworth, president of the South Seminole Heights Civic Association.

"Sometimes an hour's worth of work is worth looking at it for a month.''

Marlene Sokol can be reached at 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.

AT A GLANCE

If you go

The City Council is scheduled to consider funding for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program at 9 a.m. Nov. 20 at City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd. Call (813) 274-8131 to confirm that the item is on council agenda in coming weeks.

Aid coming for foreclosure-prone neighborhoods 10/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 4:41pm]
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