TAMPA — Not having a city housing manager was one thing Mayor Bob Buckhorn says has thwarted his progress on an ambitious campaign promise — creating an affordable housing program modeled on Tampa's acclaimed Challenge Fund of the 1990s.
Now, more than a year and a half after the city's last housing manager retired, Buckhorn is hiring Vanessa B. McCleary away from her job as downtown development manager in Rocky Mount, N.C.
McCleary is expected to start as Tampa's housing and community development manager in early November, pending the completion of a background check and drug test. Her salary will be $95,000 a year.
McCleary has worked for 15 years for the city of Rocky Mount, which is about 60 miles east of Raleigh and has a population of about 57,000. There, she also served as community development administrator, where she sought to line up both nonprofit and for-profit partners to help the city create economic opportunities in the inner-city.
Before that, she worked with three different housing programs. She has a bachelor's degree in human service from Springfield College in Wilmington, Del., and is a certified home specialist and housing counselor.
Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern welcomed news that the city had filled the job. She had worried that city housing efforts, such as an initiative to help the elderly keep their homes in good repair, had suffered because "we haven't had the staff to help them."
"Once you meet her you will be very excited," city economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh told Mulhern at a council meeting last week. "One of the criteria we were looking at was somebody who has redevelopment experience, and she is very strong in that area."
Council member Lisa Montelione said she likes what she's heard of McCleary's experience in downtown and community development, historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization.
"It sounds like she's got a background in all of the things that the mayor is working on," Montelione said Monday.
McCleary's hiring takes care of one thing Buckhorn said he lacked to carry out a campaign promise to start work during his first year in office on a program modeled on the Challenge Fund. To voters who lived in Tampa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the promise harkened back to a time when Tampa was a nationally recognized leader in creating affordable housing.
During then-Mayor Sandy Freedman's administration, in which Buckhorn served as Freedman's special assistant, the Mayor's Challenge Fund program helped thousands of Tampa residents buy and improve homes by using public money to guarantee private bank loans for people who otherwise could not have afforded conventional loans.
In campaign literature, Buckhorn said, "the question of affordable housing for first-time homebuyers and the rehabilitation of existing homes is a priority for a Buckhorn administration."
He said his program would include down payment assistance, reduction in loan origination fees, reduced interest rates, streamlined loan applications and assistance in preparing and packaging the loans.
Since Buckhorn's election, however, the city has made virtually no progress on this pledge. The Buck-O-Meter, a project of PolitiFact Florida, the political fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times, has rated Buckhorn "Stalled" on this pledge, one of 34 promises being tracked.
Part of it, Buckhorn has said, is that City Hall hasn't had a housing manager since Sharon West retired from the job in January 2012. Buckhorn said he wasn't satisfied with the first round of 52 applicants so he told his staff early this year to re-advertise the position nationwide.
The city then received 458 applications.
But even with McCleary in place, there are at least three other factors Buckhorn would have to contend with to create the program he promised:
• Money. As the name suggests, the Challenge Fund provided financial backing to help private lenders make loans to prospective buyers. Buckhorn has said money for the program could and should come from Florida's $200 million share of a national settlement between states and banks over mortgage foreclosure practices. But last spring, the Legislature allocated none of that money to city programs.
• Partnerships with private bankers, nonprofit organizations and other government agencies. The Challenge Fund was built around a network of such relationships. But Buckhorn has acknowledged that the city works with housing partners "in sporadic and scattershot ways."
• The sheer size of the problem. There are an estimated 6,000 vacant or foreclosed homes within the city limits.
In an interview early this year, Buckhorn said part of the problem has been that, "I've had so much else on my agenda that I just haven't been able to get to it. It hasn't gotten my undivided attention.
"We're doing good stuff out there, but it's not comprehensive, it's not organized, it's fractured. It's just not up to what I expect."