GIBSONTON — Jill and Rickie Simmons literally could not move out of Carriage Pointe fast enough.
While they were loading their moving van on a recent Thursday afternoon, a stranger stole $3,500 from the console of their truck.
The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office sent a deputy, but it was too late. Their moving money was gone in broad daylight.
The couple, who lived in a house owned by Rickie's grandparents, say they've seen vandalism and heard gunfire during their two years in this neighborhood. Children were not cared for properly, Jill said. "They'd walk around with nothing but diapers in the cold weather."
Developed in 2004 and sold largely to investors, Carriage Pointe offers an extreme example of the dilemma faced by area suburbs ravaged by foreclosures: Which is worse, an empty house or an unsuitable renter?
Clusters of Section 8
Ten miles north in a county office, Gil Machin fields calls from angry homeowners.
As manager of the Section 8 housing voucher program, Machin helps needy families find lodging. By design, the federal program is supposed to disperse renters to avoid creating ghettos. But not all landlords accept Section 8, and not all rents are low enough for participating families.
"It's not like they can go and live in Avila," Machin said.
By default, they often are clustered in places such as the University of South Florida area, with its abundance of aging, multifamily housing.
When voucher users enter newer communities, neighbors react.
"I can understand their perspective," Machin said. "They didn't buy in these places thinking they would be living among low-income, subsidized housing."
He said he does not know of any rule that would limit how many Section 8 homes are in a community.
In the last few years, eight homes on Carriage Pointe Drive have been rented through the program, Machin said. Three are in it now. Five are listed on the Web site GoSection8.com.
The Tampa Housing Authority also issues Section 8 vouchers, which renters can use anywhere in the county. Spokeswoman Lillian Stringer said she could not find any records of Housing Authority clients renting in Carriage Pointe.
But an e-mail from a former employee in her agency describes a meeting in 2008 between Carriage Pointe Section 8 renters and homeowners.
Homeowner Kourtney Ingrati said she became aware of the issue in December 2007 when two Carriage Pointe teenagers — who lived in a Section 8 house — were charged with shooting two other teens after school.
Ingrati said she was at the 2008 meeting between the homeowners and Section 8 renters at the Housing Authority's West Tampa office. "We gave them a copy of their bylaws and they said they would control their kids," she said.
'As safe as anywhere'
Opinions vary as to just how bad things are in the neighborhood, which sits midway between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75. There are 382 homes. Since late 2006, there have been 256 foreclosure filings.
Sheriff's Maj. Ronald Hartley said the crime is no worse than anyplace else. Nor is it fair to blame Section 8 renters, he said. There might be nine law-abiding families from the program, but the 10th can disrupt an entire neighborhood. Or, he added, that family of criminals might be homeowners.
He said his department has been successful in maintaining order in Carriage Pointe.
"I do see cops go by five or six times a day," said homeowner Gloria Diaz. "It makes me feel safe. But then, why are they passing through here so much?"
Because that's how you stop home burglars, Hartley said. "You're not going to catch them on 41 or (U.S.) 301."
Diaz, who wishes she could move without taking a loss on her house, said she doesn't know what is better, an empty house or a rented one.
When houses are empty, she said, criminals strip them bare. Then again, she said, a renter once threw soiled underwear into her swimming pool, on a metal spike.
"We called the cops," she said. "We knew who it was."
Seeking to shore up neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates, the federal government has pumped billions of dollars into the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. It works like this: Local governments buy foreclosed homes, fix them up with the help of nonprofit organizations, and sell them to moderate-income families. If a home is not sold within six months, it is supposed to be rented.
The county, through this new program, has closed on three Carriage Pointe homes since December. Panic set in when one was deeded to the Tampa Housing Authority.
Ingrati poured her outrage into a letter to the authority.
"I purchased a home at the peak of the housing market at $220,000, and my home is worth $100,000, along with anyone else who purchased homes during that time," she wrote.
"How do you expect our community to bounce back if the residents you are placing here barely make minimum wage?"
It turns out that Section 8 is not an immediate option for these three houses. After the 2007 shooting, the Carriage Pointe Community Association amended its deed restrictions, requiring new owners to wait two years before renting out their houses.
Some homeowners suspect the new restriction is not being enforced. Still, county foreclosure manager Lanette Glass said, "We cannot supersede the amendment they made in 2008."
She is convinced that, once renovated, the three houses will be easy to sell.
The county, meanwhile, has no control over the other houses with absentee owners who have waited their two years and want to go the Section 8 route.
"Any property is eligible to participate if the owner so chooses," Machin said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602.