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PROUD HOMEOWNERS // The Old Southeast

"I love this neighborhood," Mike Kepto says. "I'm sold on it."

Kepto both lives and works in the Old Southeast, a St. Petersburg neighborhood that stretches from Tampa Bay to Fourth Street and from Salt Creek to 22nd Avenue S. He is the area's community police officer. His neighborhood is his beat.

Last October he and his wife, Joyce, bought a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house, built around 1925, for $92,500. Their purchase was made possible under the city's Police in Neighborhoods program, which urges police officers to move into targeted areas. The city bought down the mortgage interest rate, so the Keptos are paying only 5 percent interest on their 20-year mortgage.

"There's a stigma about living on the south side," Kepto said, "but you've got to come in and see this area." His home, on 22nd Avenue SE, will be open for tours Sunday in the Parade of Neighborhoods.

"People don't realize there are nice neighborhoods south of Central Avenue," said Karl Nurse, the neighborhood association president. At previous Parades of Neighborhoods, "we've had hundreds of middle-class families who were amazed there were nice old houses."

The homes are a mix: beautifully groomed houses with bright gardens fronting Lassing Park, on Tampa Bay; houses undergoing renovation, with tradesmen's trucks parked in front; and homes ready and waiting for some This Old House rehabilitation.

The Keptos have been working away on their old house: replacing jalousie windows on the 32-foot porch, landscaping, putting in a pool, adding a swing set for the kids, opening up the TV room with french doors that lead onto the porch.

The neighborhood association is working with the city to install historic acorn-shaped street lights and to hang street signs identifying the neighborhood. The association just planted 60 oak trees on Third Street and 19th and 22nd avenues SE.

The Keptos and their children _ 5-year-old twins, Matthew and Melodie, and 2-year-old Rebecca _ feel safe in the neighborhood. "Every neighborhood has burglaries," the police officer said. "The crime problem is no different here than anywhere else."

One night, Kepto recalled, he heard a man out in the street yelling obscenities. "And I've got all these kids," he said. He went out and talked to the man: "

"Hey, not in my neighborhood. It isn't necessary.'

"If I see something going on, I'm going to stop 'em," he said. "This is my neighborhood, this is my street."