PLANT CITY — Even after almost 100 years, Barbara Collins' home near Ball Street still looked well-kept from the outside.
The walls and mailbox were painted a rich purple. Hibiscus trees and a two-foot madonna figurine decorated her front yard.
But there was nothing Collins, 74, could do about the water that seeped through the roof and rose up through a cracked concrete slab during every storm. Unable to afford repairs that would have run into tens of thousands of dollars. the retired teacher's aide and former hospital worker lived with damp and mold problems for eight years.
"I had to throw away a lot of spreads and rugs," she said. "I was sad and depressed."
Now Collins' home is being rebuilt from the ground up through a new program that aims to preserve affordable housing stock by rehabbing homes deemed unsafe or beyond repair.
Run by Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County, homes that qualify for assistance are demolished and rebuilt in the same footprint.
The idea is to help low-income, mostly older homeowners struggling to maintain their houses. Without help, many of those homes will eventually fall into disrepair, reducing the availability of low-cost homes. Collins' home has already been demolished and a new slab laid. Construction, which will cost around $140,000, is expected to take seven more months.
She won't pay any of it.
"The plan is to replace it and, hopefully within years, somebody else will own it or her children will own it," said Jose Garcia, executive director of Rebuilding Together. "So in that way, we preserve the community with a new house."
Collins' home is one of five set to be rehabbed at a cost of about $750,000. Homeowners whose houses are mortgage and lien-free and who earn less than 80 percent of the region's median salary are eligible to apply. Funding comes from a state affordable housing fund administered by the county's Affordable Housing Services Department.
Department Director Cheryl Howell said private homes falling into disrepair is a common problem in the county's older and working class communities like Plant City.
"Many times the property is paid for but they simply don't have the money for $5,000 for roof replacement or $10,000 for windows and doors," she said. "This this is a great opportunity for us to come out and make an investment in the family, make an investment in the community and change the lives of people."
In the case of Collins' home, the cost of repairs was estimated to be more than half of the home's $42,000 assessed value. She shares the home with her son Benny Jones Jr., a veteran who is disabled.
" I feel like the weight I've been carrying a long time has gone," Collins said.
Among the other homes being rehabbed are a Tampa home considered unlivable due to structural issues and a termite infestation and a Lutz home occupied by U.S. Army veteran William Canty, who was referred to the non-profit group after code enforcement staff found him living in a home that was in bad shape.
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"I'm so grateful for what everyone has done for me. I just can't believe it," he said in a statement.
Affordable housing is set to be a high profile issue in Hillsborough this year after the county allocated $5.1 million in new funding to tackle the problem.
Housing advocates say families should not spend more than one-third of their income on housing. Otherwise, they risk spiralling into debt when unexpected expenses like car repairs or medical bills spring up.
But in Hillsborough, more than 215,000 families are spending more than 30 percent on rent, according to the Florida Housing Data Clearing House, a resource partly funded by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.
Related: Affordable housing 'nearly impossible' to build now in Tampa Bay
But just how that money will be spent has still to be determined. County officials have scheduled a forum at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library on Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. to get ideas from the public.
Commissioners may use that feedback to decide how to spend the money.
"We have 2,000 families moving here every year," Howell said. "The need is continuing to grow."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.