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HUD to send $70M in housing aid

The federal government is sending nearly $70-million in emergency housing assistance to the Tampa Bay area to help local governments with the growing foreclosure crisis.

The money will be used to buy homes emptied by foreclosures to protect neighborhoods from blight. They will be sold and the proceeds used to buy more.

Pasco County got one of the largest amounts in the country, and Tampa and St. Petersburg got more than they expected. Hernando County, which has one of the worst foreclosure rates in Florida, gets nothing because it has less than 200,000 residents.

The money comes from the $3.92-billion federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, passed by Congress in July. Florida, which has been reeling from the real estate downturn and foreclosure crisis, received $541-million, more than any other state. California was second with $529-million.

But the nation's neediest home­owners — those facing foreclosure now — won't qualify for assistance under the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's program.

Local governments can use the money to buy and rehabilitate homes that have been abandoned or foreclosed, demolish blighted structures and sell, rent or redevelop these properties. Sale proceeds can be used to purchase more homes, creating a revolving fund.

"When the money comes back, we'll do more and more and more," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development manager. "We're going to have this program for years."

But when the money starts flowing is unclear.

HUD plans to release details Monday about how the money can be spent. Governments must submit spending plans to HUD by Dec. 1.

The money was distributed based on the number and percentage of home foreclosures, homes financed by subprime mortgages and homes in default or delinquency.

Governments that qualified but would have received less than $2-million were ineligible. Those governments can ask the state for part of its $91.1-million share.

"This isn't a list you want to be on," assured Brian Sullivan, a HUD national spokesman.

In Hernando, where foreclosures have nearly tripled in the past year, officials were shocked that they hadn't qualified. A task force recently appointed by the Hernando County Commission was already scheduled to meet Monday to discuss how to allocate the grant dollars when HUD made its announcement. The county has seen 2,364 foreclosure filings since January.

"We're still hopeful that dollars will be available,'' said Jean Rags, director for Hernando's health and human services.

Governments that did qualify say the money will most likely be funneled to nonprofit groups and private contractors who will purchase and repair homes.

But some basic questions remain. The money must be returned to the U.S. Treasury if it isn't used within 18 months, according to HUD guidelines. But it's unclear if the clock starts ticking once a plan is approved or when the first dollar is spent.

"There are a lot of mechanics to work out and nobody has done it before," said Anthony Jones, director of Pinellas County's community development office. "It's going to require several groups of people working together."

In Pasco, Romagnoli spent the morning clicking "refresh" on the HUD Web site, waiting for the news.

It was big: almost $19.5-million, the 17th largest allocation in the country.

"It just dramatizes how bad the problem is here," Romagnoli said, citing 1,100 homes sold in foreclosure this year and another 5,100 in the early stages of foreclosure.

Romagnoli estimates he will be able to buy 250 to 300 foreclosed properties. "Ironically, we've created a great solution to our affordable housing needs," he said. "In the misery of others we're going to help other people."

Pasco will focus its efforts in Holiday, Port Richey and Land O'Lakes, where foreclosure rates are highest. "What we really want to do is target the houses that are in the worst shape," said Romagnoli.

But other local governments have yet to determine how they will spend the money.

St. Petersburg received $9.4-million, but city officials said they weren't sure how many properties that could buy. Nearly 8 percent of all homes in St. Petersburg are in foreclosure.

"We've been planning, but we needed to know how much money we would receive," said Joshua Johnson, the city's Housing & Community Development director. "We hope we can make quite a bit of difference."

Tampa received more than $13.6-million from HUD.

"It is higher than we expected," said Cynthia Miller, director of Tampa's Growth Management and Development Services. "This is frankly more money than we get annually from the federal and state governments combined for housing programs."

City staffers have already started talking with local banks, HUD and Fannie Mae to see what properties are available for purchase, Miller said.

In Hillsborough, Bill Armstrong, the acting director of the county's Affordable Housing Office, said he and his staff will work quickly to develop a plan for how to put its $19.1-million share to good use. From January 2007 to April 2008 there were at least 15,958 foreclosures in Hillsborough County, according to Tampa housing officials.

The county's Affordable Housing Office has come under scrutiny in recent years for its inability to meet deadlines for spending federal grant allotments. That won't be the case with this new money, Armstrong said.

"The team that's out there, they'll get this committed, they'll do it right, and they'll do it through a process that's fair," Armstrong said.

Times staff writers Will Van Sant, Janet Zink, Barbara Behrendt, Bill Varian and Molly Moorhead contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Foreclosure funds

The Tampa Bay area received $69.7-million in federal housing assistance aid. How it breaks down:

Pasco $19.5-million

Hillsborough $19.1-million

Tampa $13.6-million

St. Petersburg $9.4-million

Pinellas County $8-million

HUD to send $70M in housing aid 09/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 3:50pm]

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