When Karl Nurse took a seat on the City Council in 2010, he pledged to revitalize the decrepit housing in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
But he didn't anticipate the roadblocks he would face, or how intensely personal his quest to redevelop Midtown would become.
In an area flooded with thousands of crumbling homes, Nurse has been quietly buying, repairing and then renting foreclosed homes. Pinellas County records show the council member has paid more than $164,000 for 10 properties over the past three years, either through foreclosure or tax-deed sales.
He spent $160,000 to renovate those homes, according to county work permits. Nurse estimates he spent another $133,000 for upgrades that didn't require permits.
With most of Midtown awash in poverty, it will take Nurse years — if ever — to recoup the money he has spent since 2011.
"My wife would be happy if I could just break even," he said, laughing as he stood across from a house he owns on Melrose Avenue S. "My goal is to cause a spark to rehab the neighborhood."
While much of the city flourishes, Midtown has lagged. The economy stalled efforts by city leaders to improve poverty, educational disparities and employment in the area.
Nurse, 59, a small business owner worth $1 million, is determined in his one-man crusade, but said many problems are beyond his control:
• With investment firms buying 100 homes at a time in the area, he can't slow the tide of decay in Midtown. The firms try flipping the homes for profits without making repairs, he said, and the sales don't create stability.
• Criminals have left many to rot after stripping plumbing and wiring from interiors. When the city tries recruiting nonprofit agencies to buy homes, they are not worth fixing. Hundreds await demolition. Of the 830 boarded homes in the city, 358 sit in Midtown.
• It's a hard market for Midtown buyers, who need cash. The dilapidated homes will not pass inspections needed for mortgages.
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Nurse has a long reputation for being passionate about housing issues.
While leading the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association in the 1990s, Nurse pushed neighbors and city leaders to clean up the area.
While on the council, he helped create the city's foreclosure registry to track homes with overgrown weeds, broken windows and muck-filled pools.
To spur sales, he lobbied for a program to erase thousands of dollars in liens and assessments on vacated properties. Such charges often exceeded the value of many properties.
As an example, Nurse points to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. The agency bought property on Fourth Avenue S to build a shelter. A decades-old lien for code violations, demolition and interest topped more than $150,000. The city agreed to forgive the lien once the land is developed.
Before, "no one was willing to purchase and invest in these properties," Nurse said.
He owns a similar property.
In July 2012, Nurse paid $4,500 in a tax-deed sale for a lot with a concrete structure on 19th Avenue S. A builder abandoned it years ago, and racked up more than $30,000 in assessments. Nurse can't do anything with the property until the fees are paid or forgiven.
In December, he abstained from voting when the council renewed the lien program. He wants to have the liens wiped out, but city attorneys are researching whether conflicts exist.
Given Nurse's strong push on housing policies and his personal investment, some wonder whether his private activities create too much of a conflict with his public duties.
"As a council member you have to be very careful not to blur the lines when you're investing your personal dollars," said former council member Leslie Curran, who owns an art gallery and also promoted arts while on the council. "Sometimes perception is worse than reality."
Nurse thinks it's pretty clear he's not in it to make money.
If he was, he said he would buy and sell homes in more affluent neighborhoods.
"I have gone into this knowing I'd lose money, he said. "If you want to change a neighborhood, somebody has to start. Not much was going on here."
To recoup as much money as possible, Nurse tries to sell the homes himself to save on Realtor fees. He lists his personal cellphone on the signs.
"I get a kick out of seeing a troubled house look good at the end," he added. "If I can leave office in four years with the toughest part of the city in an upward direction, I've done good."
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In late 2011, Nurse paid $15,000 for a foreclosure on Melrose Avenue S.
Besides removing an enclosed porch infested with termites, Nurse spent more than $35,000 for a new roof, plumbing and windows on the Old Florida-style bungalow.
To recoup his money, Nurse would need to sell the home for more than $50,000. That's unrealistic — today. Instead, he rented the three bedroom, one bath home.
"It's a great house," said Deborah Scott, who pays $800 a month for rent. "If anything goes wrong, he's on top of it."
Three other homes on the street have been cleaned up since the rehab.
Nearby, nails are being pounded into homes the city is building with federal dollars.
Once the 1,500-square-foot houses sell, the presumably higher sales prices will boost comparable sales for future purchases. The city received enough money to build 14 homes this year.
Mary Oliphant, 71, a 38-year housekeeper at Eckerd College, praised Nurse for improving a home across from her on Auburn Avenue S.
Before Nurse bought the home in 2013 for $29,500, it had broken windows, a dilapidated fence and decimated interior. He spent $30,000 on renovations and is now trying to sell it for $89,000.
"If I had enough money, I'd buy it," Oliphant said. "If it's helping the black people here, he's doing a great job."
Nurse fears absentee owners in Midtown. They hinder growth and slow the ripple effect of individual homes being repaired, he said.
Citywide, officials estimate that lenders seized more than 5,000 homes in the Great Recession.
During the housing boom, older homes in Midtown sold for more than $125,000. Many now fetch $20,000 or less.
In 2012, Dalland Properties paid $2.3 million for 55 homes. The firm, with offices in Canada and Fort Lauderdale, currently has many of its 125 homes on the market.
"For Sale" signs sit near Nurse's properties. He has tried to buy several, but Dalland hasn't returned his calls. Large investment firms prefer bulk deals, he said.
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A Midtown revival will require a team effort from housing, codes and police departments, officials say. Mayor Rick Kriseman also appointed a high-level administrator to oversee Midtown development.
"It's about getting people interested in the neighborhoods again," said Michael Dove, the city's new director of neighborhood affairs. "It's going to take five to 10 years to change."
Deborah Scanlan, president and CEO of Neighborhood Home Solutions, a nonprofit housing agency on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, said the biggest impediment is the lack of jobs.
People need jobs to buy homes. Income and credit are the biggest hurdles for mortgage-seeking residents, she said.
Some help is coming.
St. Petersburg and Pinellas officials are working to set up a special taxing district in Midtown that will allow future increases in property taxes to be spent on capital improvements there.
It could be years before any money flows into Midtown, but Nurse acknowledges the policy could help him.
"I just want to break even," he said. "I'm not looking to make a profit. I'm trying to get out of this business."
Seconds later, a silver SUV passed him near Melrose Elementary School.
"Nurse," a woman barked through the window.
"Hi," he replied, softly.
"Nurse," she shouted, while driving away, "I want to thank you for all you do for us, man. Thanks. You're doing good."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @markpuente.