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No-interest loans get limited interest from homeowners

ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly everything in Denise Bentley's mid-century Oakwood Garden home is new: the doors, the windows, the roof, the hardwood floors.

The 57-year-old student can thank St. Petersburg taxpayers, who loaned her the money at no interest.

Bentley is one of thousands of people who have benefited from the city's little-known homeowners assistance program that puts millions of dollars in the hands of low-income homeowners.

But fewer than 100 homeowners have tapped into the zero-interest program this year, and city officials are considering diverting some of the $3-million left in the fund to cover other home assistance programs.

Chalk it up to the slow housing market, said Tom DeYampert, manager of housing and community development.

"We try to be flexible," he said. "Every year is different."

The city's housing and community development department set aside $4.8-million for the 2007-2008 fiscal year for loan assistance programs.

Low-income residents can use the money to purchase a first home, repair their houses, or ensure that their homes are handicapped accessible or hurricane ready.

So far, 85 applicants have received more than $1.9-million, most of it from state and federal grants. But some of the housing initiatives are being ignored.

Of $500,000 budgeted for the city's hurricane preparedness effort, only $15,000 has been used.

The city's $150,000 energy conservation program, which helps homeowners in Childs Park and Midtown make their homes more energy efficient, has not been touched.

Meanwhile, other homeowner assistance initiatives are almost tapped out, including the city's $840,083 home repair program and its $114,000 lead removal program.

Homeowners interested in receiving the interest-free loans should act quickly.

The City Council will meet this month to discuss whether to shift some of the funding to foreclosure prevention education.

Council member Karl Nurse, who proposed diverting the money, said the nationwide foreclosure trend has the potential to cripple some St. Petersburg neighborhoods.

City officials said it is common to reallocate money from one untapped fund to a more popular one.

Bentley, whose home was remodeled in March, said low-income residents don't know what they are missing by not taking advantage of the program.

"I never knew this house could look this good," she said. "Every time I walk in I can still smell the fresh paint and I am just blown away."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

No-interest loans get limited interest from homeowners 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 10:26am]
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