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Neighborhood program gets good review

Sylvia Kennedy and her daughter, Tara, don't get sick much anymore. There's a new city sewer line beneath their house and the ceiling isn't caving in. The part of the window that the shower had eaten away has been replaced and the drug dealer that dealt in their driveway is gone.

The neighborhood she moved to in 1988 is improving.

"There's lawn services now," she said. More and more of her neighbors are having their lawns done by professionals. "This is good for the neighborhood," she said.

Kennedy lives in Bartlett Park, a community targeted by St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services. The private non-profit organization was formed in 1980 to help rehabilitate then-deteriorating neighborhoods such as Harbordale, Bartlett Park and Roser Park by providing financial assistance to residents.

Neighborhood Housing Services provides loans for home repairs to families who earn less than 80 percent of the median income, organization director Joann Nesbitt said. In St. Petersburg, the median income is $34,900. The group also provides money for low-income residents to buy their own homes.

The loans, which are financed through contributions, various lending institutions, the city of St. Petersburg and the state, offer people the chance to turn an unlivable place into a home.

"It was money that I didn't pull out of my pocket," Kennedy said.

But Neighborhood Housing Services does not lend money to just anyone. Nesbitt said potential borrowers have to undergo a six- to eight-week loan application process and are obligated under a signed agreement to attend a five-week ownership class conducted by the Community Service Foundation.

The organization also attracts those who want to buy a home of their own.

The incentive for purchasing houses in target neighborhoods is low interest rates on loans. The average interest rate is 6.5 percent, although it ranges from no interest to the market rate. By attracting first-time homeowners eager to revitalize the neighborhood, Neighborhood Housing Services hopes to transform areas of boarded up houses into safe communities with a stronger, higher tax base.

"The basic impetus is toward self-sufficiency," Nesbitt said. Self-sufficiency implies a sense of pride and responsibility about the community. Self-sufficiency also means more homeowners and less renters.

Once a neighborhood is deemed self-sufficient, Neighborhood Housing Services moves on to another community. Since 1980, it has helped rejuvenate the Old Southeast neighborhood. Harbordale, according to Nesbitt, is on its way. Now the target neighborhoods are the Bartlett Park and Roser Park areas.

In total, the group has helped renovate about 150 homes since 1980.

Neighborhood Housing Services is effective, organizers say, because it works with residents of its target community. Members of the neighborhood sit on the board of directors and are involved in drawing up a five-year plan of action.

Sylvia Kennedy is grateful for Neighborhood Housing Services.

"These people were heaven sent," she said. "They worked along with me." She hopes more people will be exposed to this service.

For information, call 821-6897.

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