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Grants seen as cure-all for Hernando's woes

Tall grass and weeds mark the numerous homes have been foreclosed or left unsold and empty in the Royal Highland area of Hernando County. These may become eligible for the county to purchase if it receives a federal block grant.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Tall grass and weeds mark the numerous homes have been foreclosed or left unsold and empty in the Royal Highland area of Hernando County. These may become eligible for the county to purchase if it receives a federal block grant.

BROOKSVILLE — With Hernando County's building-centered economy hurting, the County Commission has been talking a lot lately about local impacts.

Among their priorities, they have discussed how to solve some of the daunting problems in neighborhoods dotted by abandoned homes in foreclosure. They have brainstormed ideas on how to put local construction workers back on the job. They have talked about how to provide much-needed affordable housing.

Now the county may have come across a solution that can take care of all of those needs at once.

Commissioners last week agreed to solicit the help of state and federal lawmakers to support Hernando's effort to get a share of a $3.92-billion pot set aside for federal block grants so states and local governments can stabilize neighborhoods that are in decline due to foreclosures.

In Hernando County, the money could be used to buy homes in foreclosure and hire local workers to fix them up. Then the homes could be sold — with the money going back into the program — or become part of the county's inventory of homes available for affordable housing.

Another benefit would be to move some foreclosed properties out of the glut of homes available for purchase countywide.

The funding is part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed by Congress this summer. The act also provides funding for a variety of other services, ranging from preforeclosure counseling to helping families who face foreclosure refinance into government-insured mortgages.

But for Hernando officials, who have discussed several times lately how to keep overgrown abandoned homes from taking down communities, it is the neighborhood stabilization aspect of the act that has their attention.

They just learned of the program in the past two weeks, and on Friday federal housing officials announced how they would distribute the dollars. Some larger communities already know how much they will get, but $91-million was set aside for the state to divvy up for smaller communities such as Hernando.

Florida is second to California in foreclosures, and Hernando County is in Florida's top 10 for the highest percentage of foreclosures.

The act is supposed to be focused on the communities most in need. That is why commissioners last week urged their lawmakers to be sure that the money lands in places like Hernando.

In a letter from commission Chairman Chris Kingsley to state Rep. Robert Schenck, Kingsley wrote that Florida needs to get its fair share, and Hernando County should be "allowed to apply and be awarded these funds so desperately needed to continue the housing and economic recovery.''

"These funds could not come at a more important time," Kingsley noted.

"As you know, millions of jobs have been lost during the past two years, unemployment and homelessness are at record levels and the number of foreclosures is unprecedented,'' he wrote. "At the same time, the banking and lending institutions continue to face their own struggles, placing even more of a burden on our homeowners and businesses.''

In just 2008 alone, the clerk of the Circuit Court lists 2,364 foreclosures filed in Hernando County to date.

Hernando County's Health and Human Services director Jean Rags said that the county needs to get its share of the funding.

In addition to mobilizing legislators, the county has put together a task force that will draw up a plan for how the funds could be used in Hernando County.

That plan, which would come before the County Commission for approval, will be part of the application process. Its first meeting is on Monday.

"There are a litany of opportunities with the housing authority involved,'' Kingsley said, who mentioned the possibility of redeveloping areas or even demolishing areas that are blighted.

County staffers are doing more research to make sure they know what they need to do to secure some of the funding.

"We want to be sure we're ready to go as soon as we can,'' Rags said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Grants seen as cure-all for Hernando's woes 09/27/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 6:38pm]

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