Agents in on Pasco housing rescue

NEW PORT RICHEY — In a win for real estate agents, Pasco officials revamped a foreclosure rescue plan to pour $20-million into home buyer assistance loans instead of buying and selling eyesore properties themselves.

Realtors had recoiled at the thought of a taxpayer-funded competitor: county government. So did the County Commission, voting 5-0 on Tuesday to remake the proposed program to spark life into the housing market with more sales involving brokers.

Final approval is due after a public hearing next month. No-interest loans of up to $15,000 could start being approved in January for qualified buyers in distressed neighborhoods, mostly in western and eastern Pasco.

"When I ride around the county … and I see empty homes, it's a disaster to see them," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said.

Greg Armstrong, president of the West Pasco Board of Realtors, predicted the assistance will help turn over 100 foreclosed homes a month. At that rate, 1,800 foreclosed homes would get new owners from this program, which is being created through a federal rescue effort with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the plan also would provide some business for real estate agents, whose numbers have dropped with the decline in home sales. At the end of 2004, Armstrong's group had 1,400 members, but he said it's at 850 and falling this fall.

In recent weeks, Armstrong lobbied for an even broader plan that would have placed no income limit on eligible buyers — contrary to requirements of the federal legislation providing the money.

He also singled out banks Tuesday, saying they have sold foreclosed homes too cheaply and need to help more. "Lenders in our county and our state do not get it," he said as more than 50 real estate officials sat in the crowd.

With the area's real estate doldrums and credit crisis, however, other officials did not share Armstrong's gusto.

Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association, said Armstrong was off base: Banks have no incentive to sell homes low, but have to have financially solid customers.

While the revamped program sounded good, Sanchez said, the "bottom line is, you still have to be qualified for a loan."

Asked if Armstrong's prediction was realistic, Pasco community development manager George Romagnoli — author of the original county plan to buy up properties directly — sighed and rolled his eyes. "I think it's ambitious," he said.

Money and time are tight, too. By federal law, the money has to be allotted, though not spent, within 18 months after federal approval of the plan, expected in December. Plus, none of the money can go to families making above 120 percent of the area's median income. For a four-person household, that's $67,800.

Romagnoli's approach would have put more responsibility on Pasco, but touched fewer estimated houses. The original proposal would have allotted $16-million of that money to buy and resell 182 of the most blighted homes in foreclosure working with nonprofit groups.

Another $4-million would have been spent on the no-interest loans to help people buy 400 troubled homes in distressed neighborhoods.

The proposed program results from a $19.5-million grant included in the foreclosure bailout bill Congress passed this year. Repayments of loans could provide another $6-million to pour into the program, Romagnoli said.

The remaining money would still go to housing for people with special needs, demolition of dilapidated houses and new home construction by nonprofits.

Pasco received the fifth-highest amount of money in the state, and 17th-highest nationally, because of the seriousness of its housing market troubles. The county's foreclosure rate is 8.4 percent, according to federal estimates. But foreclosures have been more intense in the southwest and southeast.

The targeted areas are primarily Hudson, Port Richey and New Port Richey on the west side, and the areas outside Dade City and Zephyrhills in east Pasco. But county officials anticipate parts of Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Shady Hills falling into the program next year, too.

The county's plan does include monthly reports for the commission to review.

The top proponent of revamping the plan was Commissioner Michael Cox, a fellow Rotarian of Armstrong. Cox said the new approach is more aggressive, and has the potential to put more owners into homes — though he admitted it could fall short of Armstrong's prediction. "It has a lot more upside," Cox said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Agents in on Pasco housing rescue 10/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 9:25pm]

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