TAMPA — First the city of Tampa sent in the bulldozers to demolish abandoned houses that Mayor Bob Buckhorn described as "a cancer" on Sulphur Springs.
Now, to rebuild the neighborhood, City Hall is going into the residential development business itself. Over the next 120 days, it aims to hire private contractors to build 12 new houses, which it will then put up for sale.
The goal, Buckhorn said, is to set the table for private investment and turn around Sulphur Springs' long slide into blight.
"We knew it was our most troubled neighborhood," he said Tuesday. "We knew if we didn't do something quickly, it would almost be beyond repair."
So in January 2013, the city launched a focused project, with the first phase targeting 51 vacant houses in or near Sulphur Springs. Each had a string of code enforcement violations. None could be lived in. None were historic. Most have since been torn down, though the city hit a delay and had to change demolition contractors.
As a result, the city now has 25 buildable lots and plans to put a new single-family home on each as funds allow. The $1.4 million the city is using to start the initiative comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As the first new houses are sold, the city plans to use the proceeds to build the next set of houses.
"It's the seed capital, which, as we sell houses, will be reinvested in the neighborhood," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator.
McDonaugh said he assumed the city probably would price the new houses at around $100,000.
The city will not build or try to sell too many houses at once because it does not want to flood the market.
The city also has sounded out several lenders about making sure financing will be available for buyers.
"I think initially we will probably lose some money on the houses," McDonaugh said. "We're going to price these attractively, so someone's not going to need a whole lot of money to get in there."
Tearing down and rebuilding the houses has been only part of the city's initiative in Sulphur Springs. It also has:
• Assigned three code enforcement officers full time to Sulphur Springs.
• Picked up and removed about 150 tons of trash and debris.
• Partnered with Tampa Electric to install 408 street lights.
• Stepped up police patrols, which officials say have resulted in a 20 percent drop in crime in Sulphur Springs in the past year.
• Opened the new Springhill Community Center, which was built with $2.5 million from the Community Investment Tax.
"It's not enough to knock these (vacant houses) down," McDonaugh said. "To rebuild the neighborhood, you have to rebuild the infrastructure and bring in new folks."
In September, the city invited contractors interested in building houses to submit their qualifications to participate in the program.
Nine qualified: All State Homes, Framework Construction, Michael Angelo Construction, Nelson Priede Construction, Manuel Lanz Construction, Florida Home Partnership, Richard Stenholm Construction, Mourer & Mourer, and Alexander Inc.
Each contractor will be able to bid on a set of about four lots on which to build. Designs on the city's website show a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a one-car garage and a front porch.
The first houses will be built on lots that are near one another as well as near Sulphur Springs Elementary School and the Springhill Community Center.
Over time, city officials expect the homes' values to rise. And taking a wide range of steps, Buckhorn said, should prevent bigger costs in the future to fight crime, put out fires and deal with the consequences of blight.
"If we don't stabilize these neighborhoods, and this neighborhood in particular," he said, "the ramifications are far worse."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.