TAMPA — Four years ago, when Joannie Melendez-Alicea last lived in Sulphur Springs, just walking to the coin laundry could be frightening.
She often heard gunshots as she lay in bed at night. Men hung out on street corners drinking beer.
"It was just not an environment I would want my kids in," she said.
But now she and her husband are going back. The couple has purchased a new home in Sulphur Springs, encouraged by a city housing program and efforts to improve the neighborhood.
"I've been down there several times, doing little drive-throughs, and I'm telling my husband, they cleaned up this area good," she said.
Melendez-Alicea, 34, and her husband, Angel Millan, 36, are buying a home there, becoming pioneers in the housing portion of the city's Nehemiah Project, which also includes neighborhood cleanup and safety measures such as new street lights.
The city began demolishing abandoned homes in Sulphur Springs last year. Contractors are building homes in phases, 10 or 12 at a time. They will build more depending on how quickly the new homes sell.
The hope is that an infusion of new homeowners, with a stake in the future of Sulphur Springs, can help rejuvenate an area long overrun by blight.
Melendez-Alicea and her husband are first-time home buyers who began looking a few months ago. They are currently renting in Ybor City.
They will pay a little over $600 a month on the $87,000 home, less than the $700 or so they're paying for rent now, she said.
"We put offers on different homes and got (outbid) by people paying in cash," she said. "It was frustrating. I was just having the hardest, hardest time."
Then they got a packet in the mail about the program in Sulphur Springs. From what she remembered, it wasn't an area where she ever thought she would want to raise her four daughters. But her mother and husband's parents live nearby, so she decided to at least take a look.
Sulphur Springs used to be a destination. People spent their summers there along the Hillsborough River. Tourists flocked to the Sulphur Springs Tourist Club, later called the Harbor Club, for its restaurant, shops and shuffleboard courts.
But then came the interstate, allowing tourists to bypass one of Florida's once-notable roadside attractions for newer, glitzier destinations. The springs themselves, reputed for healing properties that drew international visitors, were overcome by pollution and shuttered in the 1980s. The sickness seemed to spread to the neighborhoods around them.
The foreclosure crisis of recent years created a "perfect storm" of vacant homes, drugs and gang activity, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
People abandoned their homes and mortgages in Sulphur Springs. Many of the abandoned homes the city marked for demolition were owned by banks out of state, Buckhorn said.
"Sulphur Springs, but for some serious intervention, was on the verge of collapse," he said.
Now he sees a place where families can establish roots, and take pride in their property and their neighborhood, he said.
Nine home builders are working on different sites. The city plans to continue identifying abandoned lots for demolition, with no firm goal on how many homes will be built.
Several buyers are working on completing the process to be eligible for a contract, including taking a home buyer education class, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said. Four homes are under contract and more will be soon, she said. The city also is offering down payment assistance to those who qualify.
Qualified buyers must earn no more than 120 percent of the median income based on family size — $68,880 for a family of four, for example. Buyers can't own another home at the time of purchase or closing, and owners must live in the homes as their primary residence for at least five years.
"How many paycheck-to-paycheck families do you know who are able to buy a brand new home? Not many at all," Melendez-Alicea said.
She and her husband have worked hard the last few years to save for closing costs and establish good credit, she said.
"We scrounged up the money to save for closing fees," she said. "This is sort of like a dream come true."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]