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Elfers community gets boost to fix and fill vacant homes

ELFERS — During a break from volunteering at the Elfers Senior Center, Rose Shingler listed questionable properties near her home in Holiday Garden Estates. The house with a blue tarp covering a hole in the roof. The house she didn't know was vacant until recent rains turned the front yard into a jungle.

Shingler brightened up when she heard Pasco County received $5.2 million in federal grant money to buy between 50 and 70 vacant homes in Elfers, fix them up and re-sell them.

"It would certainly help our value," said Shingler, 61. "When I moved in, there were a lot of houses that were empty. There's still a lot."

The grant is the third phase of the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Earlier grants totaling $49 million allowed Pasco to buy more than 430 homes and sell 100 of them so far. The biggest change this time is that new money will be concentrated in Elfers, picked for its high foreclosure rate and poor population.

"Any investment in the neighborhood helps," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development manager. "Hopefully it's going to help bring down the vacancy rate and put people back in these homes."

A small neighborhood bordering New Port Richey along U.S. 19, Elfers is one of the oldest communities on Florida's west coast. In the early 1900s, the area became a hub for orange growers, who sold their land in the '60s and '70s to build senior housing.

As seniors died or moved out of Elfers, younger families began to move in. During the real estate boom, many investors bought homes and turned them into rental properties. Romagnoli said the area is close to a "tipping point" where the amount of rentals could destabilize the neighborhood.

Romagnoli said Elfers might rebound quicker than other areas, because it's close to Pinellas County and isn't in a flood zone — both factors making the area more appealing to buyers. Work on the program will begin this summer, as officials continue to rehab homes bought using earlier grant money.

Tax Collector Mike Olson has deep ties to Elfers and grew up there when the area was mostly orange groves. He chuckled that county officials have dubbed the once-rural enclave "Greater Elfers."

"The crackers that grew up there would be turning over in their graves at that," he said.

Olson said the two or three blocks in the heart of the neighborhood are intact, but that surrounding subdivisions "are in a state of disrepair." He acknowledges owning an old family home in the area that he has not kept up as well as he should.

Michelle Ray, 33, was visiting her parents' house on Olympia Street last week. Just down the street is an abandoned home choked with trees and bushes and a pile of trash in the back yard. Ray said she mostly worries about squatters and investors who rent out their property and don't disclose major problems with the house.

It's the same story further north on Croton Drive in Eastbury Gardens. David Greene, 70, lives across the street from a home where overgrown bushes make it difficult to walk to the front door. The home has sat vacant for three years.

"Ten years ago in this subdivision, if a home was on the market for six months, that was a lot," he said.

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, whose district includes the neighborhood, said the project pairs nicely with a separate renovation of the old Elfers School. Built in 1914, the two-story building was converted to the CARES Elfers Senior Center in 1979. Work on the building is expected to finish by the end of the year.

"It'll be refreshing because that area needs a shot in the arm," she said. "With these dollars coming in, we're going to take those houses back to being pretty spiffy."

Like most neighborhoods, Elfers streets aren't clogged with empty homes. Most houses are occupied and tidy, but there's an occasional abandoned property on many streets. Those lower values are factored in when a nearby property is appraised.

"Those abandoned homes, it's just drawing down the market," said Gregory Schwartz, president of the nonprofit Tampa Bay CDC, which is helping the county buy and rehab homes. "That's the whole point, to try to stabilize it."

Schwartz pointed to an old marijuana grow house in Jasmine Estates at Fox Hollow Drive and Lake Chrise Lane. After the owners were busted, the house sat vacant for months and needed substantial renovation inside. Once it was fixed up, a single mom moved in.

"A neighbor came out, and she was happy as all get out," he said.

Unfortunately, Schwartz said the market isn't likely to bottom out for another year or two. "And it's going to take longer to turn. It's not like in the heyday. It might take a couple more years."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

by the numbers

3,551 homes in the Elfers neighborhood

60 percent of people classified as

low-income

157 homes vacant for more than 90 days

40 percent of homes got a high-cost or subprime loan between 2004-07

20 percent of homes delinquent or in foreclosure

204 foreclosure starts in the past year

Source: Pasco County Community Development Division

.fast facts

Neighborhood Stabilization Program

Pasco County has received millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy empty homes and fix them up, with the goal of selling them to homesteaders.

Phase 1: $19.5 million, targeted to older west Pasco neighborhoods: 199 homes bought, 93 sold, 35 buildings demolished

Phase 2: $29.5 million, available for use countywide: 235 homes bought, 7 sold, 10 buildings demolished

Phase 3: $5.2 million, to be used strictly in Elfers

Source: Pasco County Community Development Division

Elfers community gets boost to fix and fill vacant homes 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 1:39pm]
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