ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council is about to make it a lot easier for people to buy and fix up the city's most troubled homes.
Council members lined up on Thursday to support a new program that would waive all liens placed against a property if new owners promise to fix the problems that led the city to file the liens and fines in the first place.
Any buyer would be eligible to rehab a property and erase the liens. But the neighborhoods that will benefit the most, according to City Council member Karl Nurse, are in the city's oldest and poorest sectors.
"The liens are probably the single biggest impediment to getting any of these properties rehabbed," said Nurse, who made the proposal 13 months ago.
The program could solve what Nurse said has become an intractable obstacle to moving the city's cheapest properties: the total amount of liens can outweigh the value of the properties. He gave this example of the problem in his district: an empty lot in the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood is worth about $5,000 but has up to $20,000 in fines levied against it.
"Nobody will ever buy that lot," Nurse said.
The liens waiver program was discussed at Thursday morning's council workshop but no data on the scope of the problem was provided to the council. Nurse estimated that thousands of properties in the city face liens.
The three members of the public services and infrastructure committee unanimously voted to put the matter up for a vote of the full council on Feb. 2. But the proposal seems assured of passing.
The council's only concern is that property owners who owe the most liens would use the program to escape their financial obligations. But only new buyers would be eligible, not anyone previously affiliated with the properties.
Also, if they don't finish the repairs within 90 days (extensions can be granted) then the deal's off and they'll be stuck with the property and the liens.
There would be no limit to the number of new properties investors could buy and pledge to rehab. If investors are certain that fixing the problems will get rid of the liens, Nurse said, they'll be more likely to buy.
But the current process poses too much financial risk for buyers: they have to buy the property, pay for the repairs, then roll the dice with the code enforcement board and hope the liens will be reduced or eliminated.
"If people do what we want them to do, they'll know that the code liens will be forgiven," Nurse said. "By doing that, we'll get more properties rehabbed."
Brian Shuford, director of government affairs for the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said the program would open the city up to more home buyers.
"It's very hard to purchase a home with a lot of code enforcement liens on it," he said. "You can't get financing so you have to be a cash buyer."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.