TOWN 'N COUNTRY— Rose Harper has had numerous next-door neighbors in the 36 years she has lived in her home.
One fixed cars in the yard. Another rented out part of the house to immigrant laborers.
Now the mustard-colored house is in the hands of www.ushomeauction.com, and Harper calls county code enforcement when, for example, workers leave the swimming pool unprotected.
"It was one of the prettiest houses when I moved in, and it's been totally let go,'' Harper said. "There's no excuse for not keeping up a home.''
Welcome to Town 'N Country, a poster child for the nation's mortgage crisis. This suburb, proudly celebrating its 50th anniversary, is on a list of neighborhoods the county considers at risk as banks tighten credit and homeowners struggle to stay afloat.
It doesn't top the list: That distinction goes to Orient Park, the University of South Florida area, Palm River, Clair Mel and Progress Village. Town 'N Country, Gibsonton and Plant City are in a group that's second in line for help under the federal neighborhood stabilization program.
The program, up for discussion Thursday by the Hillsborough County Commission, would bring $19.1-million into the county. Another $13.6-million, administered separately by Tampa, would be available for Sulphur Springs and parts of West Tampa.
The idea is to buy properties that banks have seized in foreclosure and deed them to nonprofit housing organizations, which will rehabilitate them and sell them to qualified home buyers.
The list was necessary so the county could target neighborhoods headed for trouble. In Town 'N Country, county officials report an increase in new code enforcement cases between the first and fourth quarters of the year, from 690 to 977.
Officials considered foreclosure rates, high-risk or "subprime" mortgages, and other federally defined factors that increase the likelihood of abandoned homes.
The neighborhoods represent Tampa's inner ring of suburbs, which generally share several traits: aging housing, moderate incomes and large minority populations.
Foreclosures are scattered
Realtors, investors and community leaders in the target areas do not necessarily agree with the county's findings.
Some suggest that when officials analyze the data more closely, they will find clusters of foreclosures in newer developments, where builders and investors went overboard during the boom years.
"I have not seen what you see on television sometimes, not like what you see in Detroit,'' said Julian Garcia, executive director of the University Area Community Development Corp.
In the University area, which is mostly multifamily rentals, the foreclosures are scattered among single-family homes on the periphery, Garcia said.
"A lot of the foreclosure issue is about how the original mortgages were given,'' he said.
While some homeowners fell victim to predatory lenders offering too-good-to-be-true financing, others borrowed heavily against their homes.
They became "upside-down" when home values dropped to less than what is owed.
"People are calling me and saying, 'My value is down.' They owe more than they have. They want to refinance,'' said Bank of America mortgage loan officer Luis Silva, part of a group who met with county officials last week to discuss the new program.
"We've got to stop the trend that's building of 'Let's just pick up the phone, call the bank and get rid of $30,000 (in debt).' ''
Others warned that the government could make the problem worse by buying and selling homes too cheaply.
"We've got to stop these values from falling,'' said Wesley Westmoreland of Fifth Third Bank, which has suffered relatively few foreclosures. "If everybody keeps buying at a discount, everybody's going to lose equity.''
Scott Daal, a vice president at Wachovia, agreed.
"The problem we're having is not about the properties. It's that people have no equity,'' he said. "When the values stop declining is when people will stop walking away. We're foreclosing on good customers. They're walking away because they lost equity.''
Representatives of the nonprofit organizations, who also met with county officials, raised their own concerns.
They don't want the county to set people up for failure by cutting corners on the rehabilitation or extending the kind of creative financing that got many homeowners in trouble in the first place.
County housing officials agreed, promising conventional fixed-rate mortgages.
In some cases there will be down payment assistance.
Other buyers will enjoy healthy discounts, which in effect will create instant equity.
Each homeowner also will be required to go through eight hours of housing counseling.
"I don't want to see these folks back in my program in five years,'' said Lanette Glass, manager of community improvement in the county's affordable-housing office.
Don't write off my neighborhood
Tim Carroll of Odessa has seen Town 'N Country's housing slump and recession firsthand.
He tried for months to sell an investment home near Westchase. He lowered the price twice. Two people looked at it.
When the popular Don Pablo's restaurant closed, he said, "I knew something was afoot.''
He and his wife still own rental homes in Town 'N Country.
Although he might leave his mortgage business to become a teacher — his wife, a former Realtor, already has done that — Carroll said he is not terribly worried about Town 'N Country.
"I think it will rebound, and it's not going to get worse,'' he said. "Town 'N Country will always be Town 'N Country, a nice little neighborhood with pockets that are disagreeable. It will never be like Florida Avenue in Tampa. It's just not Westchase.''
Similarly, real estate investor Armando Celeiro is optimistic about Palm River, the eastern Hillsborough neighborhood near the top of the county's list of targets.
The Cuban-born businessman points to an eclectic mix of waterfront estates and modest, well-tended cement block homes. "I'm very proud of this community,'' he said.
Celeiro realizes some homeowners overborrowed, and he doesn't reject the idea of help from the county.
"If it's done properly, of course I would welcome it,'' he said.
"I came to this country with $100. That was everybody's dream, to own a house.''
Marlene Sokol can be reached at 269-5307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.