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Neighbors keep up appearances in struggling Tampa suburbs

Frank Camara mows the back yard of an abandoned house in the Heritage Isles subdivision of New Tampa. 

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Frank Camara mows the back yard of an abandoned house in the Heritage Isles subdivision of New Tampa. 

Jordan Glass has pulled out his green Murray lawn mower 30 times in the past seven months. Not to groom his own yard, but that of vanishing neighbors, suburbanites who fell on hard times and felt their only recourse was to abandon their homes.

"I'm surrounded by vacant homes," he said. "On my short street alone, there are about 10."

As the stock of foreclosed and abandoned homes rises, Glass and many of his neighbors in deed-restricted suburbs from Hillsborough to Pasco are taking matters into their own hands, organizing Saturday mowing excursions. Their homeowners groups are adopting and amending policies that allow them to cut down waist-high grass and bill the owners for the expense.

They worry that empty, sloppy-looking homes will attract criminals and repel buyers. They fear their investments will lose value if they do nothing.

"You would be driving down the street, and you would see a lawn that was completely overgrown," said Glass, of Wesley Chapel's Bridgewater subdivision. "It just made you feel bad about your own neighborhood."

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In the suburbs, where rules dictate everything from color palettes to mailbox designs, an unkempt yard is considered unfathomable.

"We bought in here because we wanted this idyllic lifestyle," said Lisa Fernandez, president of the Rivercrest Master Home Owners Association Inc. in south Hillsborough. "We certainly didn't want to live next to vacant homes and growing weeds."

"It's not in your mind that you're going to be asked to sacrifice a Saturday with your family to bring your lawn mower to do somebody else's lawn," said Carlos Quiros, president of the Westchase Community Association in northwest Hillsborough.

Nobody's cutting grass in Westchase now, but for the first time in its history, the community added a $5,040 line item for minimal yard work to its budget, adopted in October.

Same in Rivercrest, where grass reaches 4 feet in some places and 50 of the 1,400 homes are in foreclosure or abandoned. The homeowners association is paying a company to mow, edge and trim the bushes.

"We're going to make them look presentable and lived in so they're not obviously abandoned," Fernandez said.

Folks in New Tampa's Heritage Isles and Wesley Chapel's Bridgewater are bypassing their homeowner groups and cleaning things up themselves.

"I'm cutting four lawns right now," said Frank Camara, a member of Heritage Isles' taxing district board. "It's unbelievable. When I started this after the summer rains, one of the properties had grass up to my armpit."

Two months ago, stay-at-home mom Angelina Carter created an online message board for Bridgewater. "And pretty immediately," she said, "people were saying, 'Hey, let's get together. This property's a jungle.' "

• • •

No matter how tony, how manicured, how exclusive the suburb, Quiros said, it is a mistake to assume that everyone who moves in has the means to maintain their living space.

"We have neighbors that took a mortgage they could not afford, lost jobs, family sick," he said. "Many people felt that won't happen to Westchase. It does happen."

In Hillsborough, nearly 17,400 foreclosure cases have been filed this year. Records don't break down the information by area, so its hard to tell how the mortgage crisis has affected suburbs. Reports are anecdotal.

Through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, Hillsborough got a $19.1-million federal grant to buy and resell foreclosed homes and protect neighborhoods from blight.

Suburbs such as Carrollwood, Bloomingdale and Town 'N Country won't get any of that initially and don't top the list of at-risk communities, but they are mentioned in a 26-page proposal for the program. Tampa's $13.6-million bailout plan goes before the City Council at 9 a.m. Nov. 20.

"We are not exempt," Quiros said of the suburbs.

Some welcome any abatement efforts. For more than a year and a half, Girard Labossiere complained to the Westchase property manager about an abandoned eyesore next to his home. Old newspapers, phone books and coupons littered the walkway of the home, which was appraised at more than $283,000. Bushes and weeds had not been trimmed.

"We don't pay all of this money to be here and you don't take care of problems like that," Labossiere said.

Under Westchase's self-help policy, adopted in August, the grass was cut. "At some point, somebody has to take responsibility," he said. "It's shameful that they let it go this long in a community this good."

But others find well-meaning neighbors and the homeowner policies meddlesome. Strained by economic pressures, they say lawns and appearances are the least of their worries.

"We have a couple who feel like we're harassing them, who feel like, 'Leave us alone because we can barely pay our bills,' " Fernandez said. She sympathizes — to a point.

"You signed the document saying you understood that you were moving into a deed-restricted HOA community," she said. "If it wasn't for these rules that keep our homes looking decent, our homes would be worth nothing. The appearance of the neighborhood has to be nice."

Fernandez said Rivercrest isn't asking a lot of its neighbors. "All we're asking you to do is cut your grass."

Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report.

facts

Growing problem

Number of foreclosure cases filed in Hillsborough County in 2008.

January: 1,422

February: 1,475

March: 1,627

April: 1,738

May: 1,671

June: 1,776

July: 1,838

August: 1,705

September: 1,989

October: 2,158

Total: 17,399

Source: Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court Circuit Civil Division

Neighbors keep up appearances in struggling Tampa suburbs 11/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 2:53pm]

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