ST. PETERSBURG — Gary Bush drives down Melrose Avenue, slowing his white SUV to a crawl.
The streets are deserted, except for a few cyclists. Five houses on the block are boarded up. Bush points to one, a two-story gray house once used as a duplex.
"It wasn't long ago we were in that house, and it was occupied," says Bush, the operations manager for the city's code compliance assistance department.
Too many people lived there. Now, no one does.
The empty building, along with countless others like it across the city, now pose a different problem for city code inspectors.
The lawns are overgrown and often littered with beer bottles and trash. Homeless people squat inside. Thieves break in to steal whatever they can carry.
And from where Gary Bush sits, it might not get better any time soon.
• • •
More than 520 houses sit vacant across St. Petersburg, up more than 55 percent from this time last year.
What's more, those numbers only include homes that the city has boarded, said Todd Yost, director of codes compliance. There are countless other houses boarded by owners.
The city notifies a property owner when a vacant home needs to be secured. If no one responds, the city hires a private contractor to board up the home, and a lien is placed on the property to cover the cost.
Already this year, the department has asked the City Council to approve more than $46,000 in liens.
The biggest concentration of vacant houses is in Midtown, where the city has boarded up 294 houses. In 2008, there were only 157.
Childs Park also has been hard hit. The number of boarded-up houses doubled this year to 106.
The vacant houses are sitting targets.
St. Petersburg police Sgt. Tim Montanari said his officers in the burglaries unit noticed an uptick in crime associated with vacant houses last summer, mostly in lower-income areas.
Then it exploded.
Property crimes have climbed 8 percent this year compared with the same time last year. Thieves take copper wiring, refrigerators, stoves — even kitchen cabinets, Montanari said.
Police estimate that 60 percent of burglaries take place at unlocked or unsecured homes.
The Police Department plans to send a brochure of tips to absentee homeowners to help curb the problem, Montanari said.
• • •
"How you doing?" Gary Bush shouts out the window to a few older women out for a walk.
They smile and wave as he drives past.
Landlords and renters aren't too happy to see his SUV, Bush says, but homeowners welcome his presence.
They see the value in the neighborhood's upkeep.
Even though his job requires him to be in the office, the 15-year city veteran tries to get out in the field with investigators and meet with neighborhood associations as much as he can.
"You get to know the people," says Bush, 55, whose lives in St. Petersburg and has seen his own neighborhood affected by burglaries and vacant homes.
• • •
Larry Gamble has lived on Melrose Avenue for nearly 30 years.
His blue house is neat and tidy; the opposite of the house next door, a single-story teal bungalow that has sat empty for a decade.
After his neighbor died, Gamble said, no one moved in. Discarded beer bottles and a stained cream sofa litter the yard.
Homeless people break in to sleep there, said Gamble, a surgeon at Bayfront Medical Center.
He has called police a few times. The police drive by, and a code inspector has the place re-boarded, he said.
Gamble is the exception. Most residents don't report crime, said Kiambu Mudada, president of the 13th Street Heights Neighborhood Association, which includes more than 600 properties west of Martin Luther King Jr. St. and south of 11th Avenue S.
The police show up too late to do anything, he said, and residents fear being targeted.
The teal house is slated for demolition, but that can be a long, arduous process.
After a fire marshal or building inspector deems the house unsafe, code inspectors send a notice to the owner. Owners can, and often do, file extensions and appeals.
If an owner dies, as in this case, code inspectors have to wait for the property to wind through probate before demolition.
Mudada's neighborhood association keeps a map of all the vacant and boarded houses. But the numbers and locations change so rapidly, it's tough to keep up.
Mudada blames developers — he said they swooped in and snatched up cheap property to build expensive homes.
"They came because the rent was cheap, but they couldn't deal with the crime," he said. Now, "we're left with the houses."
One of those investors was Bernice Tigerman, a nurse from Virginia.
Interviewed by phone, Tigerman said she owns about eight houses in St. Petersburg, including the one on Melrose Avenue that she bought for $65,000 in 2008.
"We saw what was going on in places like Roser Park, and we were hoping things like that would start rolling to the other side of the street," she said.
But then the game changed.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac regulations made it nearly impossible to refinance her high-interest loans, Tigerman said.
"The new rules basically killed just about every investor in town," she said.
Then a contractor quit working on the house. "I don't have the money to finish it," Tigerman said.
She's trying to sell it for $120,000.
Meanwhile, it sits empty, but not unnoticed.
Code inspectors referred it for demolition in mid May.
• • •
Bush pulls up to a dilapidated ,light green house. Boards cover the windows, like so many others in the neighborhood.
The city recently bought the house using federal money as part of a national program to help stabilize neighborhoods plagued by foreclosures.
Deputy Mayor Dave Metz said the city hopes to buy almost 50 single-family homes this way using nearly $9.5 million it received. The city also is applying for another $20 million to use for homes and apartments.
It's a small start in a long process of revitalization, Bush says. But maybe one day someone will call the green house home.
Jackie Alexander can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or [email protected]