Saturday, June 23, 2018
Business

Six homes signal fresh start for New Port Richey

NEW PORT RICHEY

A handful of single-family houses sprouting up across from Gulf High School may not look like a major development. But officials and the nonprofit developer hope construction of these six homes on School Road is the tip of the iceberg for efforts to improve west Pasco's aging housing stock. Pasco County Community Development is making a major push to spend $5.3 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants on affordable housing, with a focus on west Pasco. Officials are specifically targeting the swath south of Massachusetts Avenue, west of Rowan Road, north of Moog Road and east of U.S. 19.

The agency is partnering with the nonprofit affordable housing developer Tampa Bay Community Development Corp. — which is building those new homes on School Road — to buy up vacant and foreclosed properties, rehabilitate them, get them on the market and sell them to qualified low- to moderate-income buyers.

The county is focusing on this area — about 60 percent of which is in the city limits of New Port Richey — as it's the most in need, especially in the city, where census data shows there are more rental than owner-occupied residential properties, according to Community Development manager George Romagnoli.

"New Port Richey is moving toward being 60 percent rentals, and that's not good," he said.

That reality is where excitement over the School Road development is brewing. The six houses across from Gulf High School are the first new homes to be built in years in the city, Romagnoli said. City leaders have also expressed relief to see movement on the property.

"I'm just so glad to see dirt being pushed over there," City Council member Bill Phillips said at a recent council meeting.

The 1,400- to 1,500-square-foot homes range from $115,000 to $129,900. Buyers' income must be less than 120 percent of the median household income; they can also receive up to $30,000 in down payment assistance from the county. To qualify, a family of four would have to make less than $68,000, Romagnoli said.

Tampa Bay CDC president and CEO Greg Schwartz said the $700,000 School Road development will be positive for the area, as the homes will be owner-occupied and not investment properties, which most often become rentals.

"These are brand new homes that are going to significantly improve housing in the area," he said.

Getting to this point took years.

The city bought the property in 2006 to vacate a dilapidated building that was a hub for teenage troublemakers and a convenience store that attracted crime. A year later, officials sold the land to Tampa Bay CDC, which bought it with federal grant funds channeled through the county.

When the economy tanked, however, the nonprofit's focus was on purchasing foreclosed homes, not building new ones. So the School Road site sat empty for a few years.

Eventually Schwartz turned to Caprena Latimore to get the project rolling.

Latimore, the city's former redevelopment director, had handled the sale of the property to Tampa Bay CDC in 2007. A few years later, her job was eliminated when the city's Community Redevelopment Agency went broke after the City Council purchased properties such as the Hacienda Hotel and some church sites that the city has failed to redevelop.

Tampa Bay CDC hired Latimore in December 2011 to bring her knowledge of New Port Richey to the table. It made a big difference in launching the School Road project, as Latimore was able to navigate city development procedures to get the property rezoned from office to residential, Schwartz said.

In addition to the School Road project, Latimore said she has a bead on about a dozen other properties in New Port Richey that Tampa Bay CDC hopes to purchase for rehabilitation. Latimore said she is excited to be making a difference in a community she cares about.

"I will always have a soft spot in my heart for New Port Richey," she said.

And the focus also remains there for the county's Community Development office, which still has about $3.9 million remaining in neighborhood stabilization grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The county has until March 2014 to spend the money. But finding available vacant or foreclosed properties has become very difficult, as investors are swooping in and paying cash to purchase properties, according to Romagnoli.

"Then they either flip it or it becomes another rental property," he said.

Romagnoli said another roadblock is that banks are sitting on foreclosed properties longer than before, as it's not cost-effective for them to rehabilitate the homes, and even if they do, the property may take a long time to sell. Also, he said, banks often don't move forward with foreclosure proceedings to prevent them from showing up on their financial books.

"So you see these properties falling apart because the banks don't care and it brings down property values in neighborhoods," Romagnoli said.

Local Realtor Greg Armstrong has long been concerned about the rising number of rentals in New Port Richey and said the School Road project will be a plus for the local housing stock.

"You'll hopefully see pride of ownership there, so I think it's a great thing," he said.

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