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Study finds the eyesore isn't always the rental

(ran East, South editions)

One in an occasional series about Coquina Key residents trying to improve their property.

When it comes to fighting blight, neighborhood activists hold some truths to be self-evident.

Dilapidated homes, for instance, more often than not are rental properties. Or worse, those run-down properties are often government-subsidized rental properties housing undesirable tenants who could care less about neighborhood quality of life.

"When you live in a neighborhood and there's a problem, I don't know if it's human nature, but you think it has to be some foreign element leaking in. It couldn't be your neighbor," said Lynn Russek, one of the Coquina Key residents who has spent nearly 10 months working on a neighborhood revitalization plan with the city.

However, after 10 months immersed in code enforcement, recreation, juvenile crime, transportation and other neighborhood issues, one of the many lessons learned on this island community of 1,100 homes is that presumptions are often wrong.

Take the sampling of 61 "problem" properties that residents identified on Coquina Key. Though by no means conclusive, an examination of those homes clearly conflicted with neighborhood stereotypes. Most of the homes, in fact, are owner-occupied, and very few of them are subsidized rental units.

Neighborhood activists in Coquina Key and other St. Petersburg neighborhoods constantly complain about too many government-subsidized "Section 8" rental units. Those are privately owned properties for which the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development can pick up some or all of the rent for low-income tenants.

The program is roundly criticized by some neighborhood leaders who contend their neighborhoods are flooded with those homes, and that the homes lower property values. In Coquina Key's case, though, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority looked at the list of 61 troublesome properties on Coquina Key and found just three were Section 8.

"It seems we don't really have a problem with Section 8," said Bob Funari, another member of the Coquina Key "planning committee" now putting the finishing touches on the revitalization plan.

The other surprise was that at least 36 of the properties are owner-occupied, at least according to property tax and city utility records. It may be true that pride of ownership helps neighborhood stability, but it's no guarantee.

Apathy appears to be among the biggest problems and frustrations for Coquina Key.

Residents lately have been venting frustration over a handful of young residents widely believed to be responsible for much of the crime on the island and how the justice seems to fall short. With more awareness and involvement from the neighbors, residents say, more action _ even civil suits _ could be possible.

"There's been a lot of educating," said Suzy Ajoc, a neighbor working on the Coquina Key plan. "Some of the things they want to do, we're a little constrained because of statutes."

Chronic code violations, for instance, often take months to resolve. Residents see a yard loaded with debris or junk cars and they expect a complaint to City Hall will get it cleaned up pronto. Not necessarily. Due process means an uncooperative property owner can drag out the matter for months, while codes investigators send repeated notices and carry out inspection after inspection.

"We became so educated in the insanity of the codes system, we threw our hands up," said Russek, who thinks Coquina Key will be much better off having developed a revitalization plan.

A draft of that plan is expected to be presented to the entire neighborhood Aug. 27. It includes proposals on everything from landscaping to block parties to speed bumps, and eventually will be approved by City Council members.