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WIN formula boosts people looking for better housing

(ran West, East, South editions)

The dining room, with its spatters of paint dancing across the floor and stack of books in the corner, is the room closest to being finished. The living room, its walls stripped and its windows boarded, is quite a ways off.

And the second floor? It's still an attic; a staircase leading to it has yet to be built.

But Kris Self is in love with her hardwood-floor bungalow on Burlington Avenue N, so much that when she moved in a year ago, she sent out mock wedding invitations to a housewarming party she threw.

"The cake said, "Just married,' and it had a bride and a house (on it)," said Self, 36. "You know how they have rice at weddings? I had grass seed."

Self uses lots of matrimonial metaphors to describe her relationship with the blue-and-white house in the historic Kenwood neighborhood. "It's like a husband _ deep down you love him, but some days you just hate him."

Without a city program that helps people buy homes or improve their current ones, Self would still be flirting with the idea of owning a home. "I would still be renting," said Self, who owns a computer business.

Working to Improve our Neighborhoods, or WIN, is a program that uses local, state and federal tax money to help home buyers with downpayments and closing costs. People who want to replace roofs, widen doorways or make other repairs can also get some help.

WIN is not a low-income project, organizers say, but one that strives to make home ownership affordable and repairs possible. Its goal is to improve living conditions for individuals, while making neighborhoods more attractive.

"These are not grants. The city does not give money away," said Tom de Yampert, housing coordinator in the city's planning, housing and development review services department.

Instead, the city will make no-interest loans to qualified buyers. For example, a buyer who needs $50,000, but who is approved by a bank for only a $48,000 loan, could bridge the gap with a city loan.

Buyers must come up with at least 2 percent.

How much a family earns dictates its eligibility, and the dollars come from different sources, depending on which income bracket a family falls into.

Federal money helps families of four whose income is $31,500 or less; state money helps those families at $47,280. City dollars help families of four who earn up to $59,100, de Yampert said. The city could have given the money out, but thought loans would help more people because the money is recycled, he said.

"The thought process was that if you give things away, they don't have any value," he said.

WIN's target area focuses mainly on central and southern parts of St. Petersburg, but assistance is not limited to people who buy in those areas. Those outside the target boundaries are referred to the Tampa Bay Community Development Corp. in Clearwater, although any dollars they receive come from the city of St. Petersburg, de Yampert said.

Last year, the program handled 196 home purchases, loaning $2.4-million, and made 452 repair loans worth $1,325,000, de Yampert said.

Some loans for repairs made to low-income residents may be forgiven, de Yampert said. In those cases, where the repairs might include removing lead-based paint or adding a ramp to accommodate a wheelchair, 10 percent of the loan is forgiven each year, provided the recipient lives in the house, he said.

"We don't put in pools. We don't put in Jacuzzis. We don't put in solariums," de Yampert said.

Through WIN, the city is dispensing more than dollars. By helping spruce up neighborhoods and filling them with homeowners, the program boosts community pride and raises property values, de Yampert said. He wishes more people knew about the program.

"It's the best-kept secret in the city of St. Petersburg. In every meeting that I go to (to discuss the program) there are people who just sit back in astonishment," he said. "What we are trying to impart is there is no reason for any person in the city of St. Petersburg to live in substandard housing."

Self, the Kenwood resident who got help from WIN, praised the program.

"The people in the WIN department just worked so hard," she said. She came up with $1,800 and WIN loaned her $2,500 for the down payment on a $36,500 home.

She may seek additional assistance with further renovations on the house, which she said "was a boarded-up crack house in the '80s." She knew it needed a lot of work before she moved in, but the former condominium resident said enduring the dusty mess of a house under renovation is worth it.

"I like the fact that I can do whatever I want to my house. If I want to tear out a window and put in a door, I can do it," said Self, who has joined her neighborhood association's board of directors since moving into her home.

"This house has a lot of charm and character," she said. "It just needed someone to love it."

TO CALL WIN

For information on the WIN program, call the hot line at 892-5565.

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