SPRING HILL — When Sandy and Socorro Beiro first heard about a government program that could get a moderate-income family into a foreclosed home, they were skeptical.
"We were frightened, very frightened," Mrs. Beiro said. "You know when something looks too good to be true that it probably is. With all the scammers and things that go on … ."
But the couple, who were living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment so small that they could not have their family visit, decided to take a chance and they applied.
They were accepted and began looking for just the right home.
Mrs. Beiro knew immediately when she found it.
"I felt a warmth. I saw myself living here, and I saw past the damage and the problems and imagined what it was going to look like," she said.
As they sat in their comfortable living room in a remodeled home on Godfrey Avenue recently, the couple, who retired to Spring Hill four years ago from New York, were grateful and awed by how their lives had changed.
Their master bedroom and bath are larger than their old apartment. They have guest rooms for their family. They have a fenced yard where their grandchildren can play.
Stenciled on the wall near the front door are the words: "May all who enter as guests, leave as friends."
"It was like the furthest thing from our minds, that we would ever be homeowners," Mrs. Beiro said.
The couple, who have been married for 43 years, are confident that they will be able to keep up their new home. Their $450-a-month mortgage payment is less than the $700 they were paying in rent, and they no longer need to lease a storage unit.
Their belongings — including plenty of family photos — now surround them in their new home.
For Sandy Beiro, 70, and his wife, Socorro, 68, this is the first home they have ever owned.
"We thank God each day," he said.
"We are very happy," she added.
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The Beiros are one of 65 families who had something special to celebrate this holiday season. Over the past year and a half, they have been able to apply for, qualify for and follow through with participation in Hernando's Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
The county received more than $3 million in federal dollars, routed through the state, to develop a program that would get foreclosed houses off the market, fix them up and ready them for sale to moderate- to low-income residents. The process was also designed to put local contractors, real estate agents, title companies and others back to work.
The end result was supposed to be positive for everyone and help improve communities spoiled by abandoned foreclosed homes with overgrown lawns.
Recently, the county's administration of the grant was reviewed by officials from the Florida Department of Community Affairs. They visited with county community services director Jean Rags, reviewed her files and visited with families, including the Beiros.
DCA program specialist Jeannie Russell recently wrote to the county that Rags and her team met and exceeded all requirements and would likely be the first in the state to finish their grant process.
But it wasn't the paperwork that left the greatest impression.
"Jean and her team have taken us on several tours of their projects and allowed us to talk to homeowners and walk through their new homes," Russell wrote. "The joy these people relay to me during these tours, well I just can't stop smiling."
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The benefits of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program are obvious to the home buyers, as the dollars help them remodel damaged foreclosed homes and afford the down payments. How neighborhoods are helped is more anecdotal.
Ask Terri Kallnischkies' neighbors if the program is a good thing. Her home on Manassas Avenue in Royal Highlands landed in the headlines in December 2009. Five people were arrested there after one of them called the Sheriff's Office to report that someone had invaded the home and stolen their marijuana. When deputies arrived, they found a grow house.
The windows were blacked out. A hole had been knocked through the garage and into the master bedroom for the irrigation system. A ventilation system had been rigged up, and there were 59 marijuana plants growing inside.
The electrical and plumbing systems were ruined. The walls were a shambles. Mold from all the moisture had inundated the home, which was just a couple years old.
Kallnischkies never saw the house in that shape. The repairs made possible through the stabilization program were done before she got a good look. Now she is grateful she is able to put the place back to its intended use, as a home for a family — a home to build up the neighborhood, not an eyesore.
She learned of the stabilization program by accident. A teacher recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Kallnischkies, 47, was talking to a colleague about potential teacher cuts mentioned in a newspaper article. On the same page was a story about the program, and she recognized Rags' name as a counselor she had in community college.
Rags encouraged her to apply.
Kallnischkies had been living in a 500-square-foot addition attached to her parents' house, paying $400 a month. She pays about $200 a month more now for the mortgage on the three-bedroom, two-bath home, which she shares with her fiance, her 14-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old son.
"With a teacher's salary, I would never have been able to do it," she said. "I felt like I had won the lottery.''
Kallnischkies said that she cannot believe how much her life has changed. A year ago, she was undergoing chemotherapy to fight for her future. Now, she is cancer-free, living in her own home with her family.
"I'm totally blessed, unbelievably so,'' she said. "God is so good to me."
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Rags said the other plus of the program is that it has been "a bright spot for businesses."
"I'm very grateful that we had that work this year," said builder Dudley Hampton of BJH Construction. "It prevented me from laying people off."
While Hampton didn't win every bid he placed for a job, he did win a half dozen or so and got a good feeling doing the remodeling work, including the work at the Beiros' home.
"The folks you're dealing with are just so appreciative," he said. "It does make you feel good when you do good."
Hampton also said the county wins when the foreclosures come off the books.
"It is good for the county when you get somebody new into a house," he said. "That contributes to the tax base of the county, and that's very important."
Cameron Zareie of Tangent Construction Services, based in Brandon, another contractor that worked on about 10 homes, agreed.
"It keeps the rest of the neighborhood from having property values that are plummeting," Zareie said. "I think it has really been good."
He said he even had neighbors come up to his crews to tell them how grateful they were that someone would be moving into the abandoned homes.
Zareie said the overall experience was a positive one and that it was good to see people get into homes that they probably couldn't afford without the help of the program.
"We got to meet home buyers who were generally young couples with a couple of kids," he said. "That was nice, to be getting people into their first homes."
Real estate agent Jackie King, who was so excited about the stabilization program that she created business cards playing it up, found one difference between regular home closings and closings for stabilization homes.
On one of her first closings at the Hernando County Government Center, she brought along all the required ingredients for a closing, but was turned away at the door. It seemed, according to security, she couldn't bring the champagne into the building.
No problem, she said, and later followed the new homeowners home to enjoy a toast.
King was part of about 30 of the home purchases and called the program "a blessing," for herself and the home buyers.
"It's really satisfying to help young people," she said.
She was also able to see how the program helped struggling neighborhoods.
When new people move in, they bring up property values. They plant new plants and fix up their new abodes.
"It brings new life to the neighborhood," King said.
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Hernando's Neighborhood Stabilization Program was designed to ensure that the new homeowners succeed. They attended classes, learned about budgeting and were walked through the process one step at a time.
Rags explained that part of that process was to put restrictions on the homes the buyers could consider. For example, homes with pools were not accepted because pool maintenance is expensive and could send a family off track on its finances.
Mortgage types and amounts were restricted. No sinkhole homes were allowed and none that were built before 1978.
"Everything we did, we wanted them to be successful now and into the future," Rags said. "It gives these people some financial independence. They learn some responsibilities."
All those lessons were repeated to the buyers throughout the process, repeated by the real estate professionals, the title companies, the lenders.
"I think it was a learning process for some of the new homeowners," Rags said. "It was just so rewarding to see people be able to have something so tangible, to have their own homes."
Another part of the program allowed a nonprofit organization to purchase and renovate 20 additional foreclosed homes for use as rentals for low-income residents.
Rags said she is hopeful that, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prepares a third stabilization program, Hernando County can snag another $1.9 million, with 75 percent for foreclosed home purchases for buyers and the other 25 percent for rentals.
While the design of that program is still being developed, Rags said that HUD is looking to concentrate on smaller areas with high rates of foreclosures, and she and her staff are researching areas in Hernando that might qualify.
Rags said regardless of the details, the community could use the dollars. The program can work, she said, and Hernando is proof of that.
"It gives the people hope," she said. "It gives hope that there is a recovery on its way."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.