ST. PETERSBURG — Carrie Norris pushed through the glass door of her office in northwest St. Petersburg and let out a deep sigh. She heard thunder. She waded through the muggy heat to her Nissan Juke.
Her drive home from work was long: once 20 minutes, now an hour and 15. But first, she had an overdue visit to make.
Norris, 47, pulled into a strip mall and peered up. Dark clouds hung to the north. Was that a raindrop? She stepped into her best friend’s salon, Serenity 101.
“You don’t come this side anymore,” said Revella Wilkins, making a quick unhappy face as she entered. “You don’t like to go anywhere, anymore.”
Norris smiled sheepishly. It was true. Her social life had disintegrated. The two women had met working at Franklin Templeton, an investment firm, more than 20 years ago. They used to go out dancing. They celebrated birthdays. But it was getting harder. Over the July 4th weekend, Norris had been invited to three get-togethers in St. Petersburg, but then storm clouds gathered over her new house.
“I mean, I like to go, but it’s too far,” Norris said to Wilkins. “There’s no lights on the interstate. That drive at night. It’s scary going home.”
Norris moved in for a goodbye hug.
“Too bad you had to buy a home over there,” Wilkins said.
Norris was upset about it, too. A single mom, she’d started looking for her own home 15 years ago when her two kids were still young. Each of them, she was determined, would get the bedroom she couldn’t always count on.
While they rented a place, she studied business at St. Petersburg College and worked in the city’s water resources department. She tried Habitat for Humanity, but they turned her down: too much debt because of a car loan. She paid that down and returned — but now, she was told, she made too much. She earned a master’s in business from the University of Phoenix and kept looking.
Her neighbor had told her about the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a nonprofit homeownership program with a branch in Tampa. Norris applied and, with a good rental payment history, qualified in late 2020 for a $235,000 loan.
She searched through the neighborhood of her childhood, Childs Park, where she’d moved between relatives’ homes as her parents dealt with their own problems. Her search took her close to what was once her grandmother’s home, the two-story house she’d visited so often on 18th Avenue S. Bought in 1966, it had stood in her family for decades — until the city purchased it for $151,000 in 2005.
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They demolished the house. Grass grew over the empty lot for more than a decade.
Her search expanded. She’d watched developers lap up lots and build a $300,000 home right next to a $30,000 home. She saw luxury apartments pop up around the city. Her kids were growing older. She’d worked so hard to get ahead and yet it wasn’t enough. All of her family members had owned their own homes in Childs Park. Now most of them had died. How could she leave?
In June 2020, she’d written to then-Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“I can’t believe I have to travel across the bridge from my native city and also the city I work in to purchase an affordable home because I can’t even afford to buy one in my childhood ‘hood,’ ” she wrote. “I can’t believe you are allowing this to happen in our city.”
She received an automatic email reply, she said, but no return call.
A loan counselor suggested a development called Sereno Manors in Wimauma.
She didn’t know anyone in Wimauma.
She had never been to Wimauma.
But she took one look at the model home for $235,000 on the other side of Tampa Bay and signed the paperwork. Her payment is $1,211 a month. These days she makes $72,000 a year and can pay her mortgage and house bills with a single paycheck. She considered herself lucky. A neighbor in her old complex was facing a rent increase of $800 a month.
In the car, she craned her neck to look at the smoky gray sky. Her hands looked like they were throttling the steering wheel.
She cranked the radio. Cardi B rapped on Normani’s “Wild Side.” Norris’ grip relaxed and her left hand rapped the wheel; her shoulders shimmied.
“WOOOOOO,” Norris yelled, steering sharply to the right to avoid a drifting SUV. She shook her head, wavy hair bouncing. Grabbed the wheel tighter. Accidents in 2013 and 2017 had left her with a herniated disc.
Sometimes she thought about whether it was worth it. She disliked the distance, from her family, from her friends.
But this commuting from one place to another wasn’t any different than how she’d always had to live her life.
In middle school, she was looking forward to her neighborhood school, Tyrone Middle. But at the last minute, she was bused 11 miles north to hallways full of mostly white kids at Osceola Middle. Gibbs High School was so close she could walk, but she’d been forced to travel six miles away to Dixie Hollins High School in Kenneth City.
“WOOOOO,” she cried again, as a Jeep appeared to come too close on her right. She slammed on her brakes. “Why do you have to swerve out like that?”
She got on Interstate 275 south, crossed the Sunshine Skyway bridge and headed north on Interstate 75. She got off at Sun City Center, kept east, and stopped just over the border in Wimauma. She drove past a lake, pools, tennis courts, fresh sidewalks and fledgling trees, down a street of similar-looking homes. Then, two stories, the color of cream, with brick and dark brown trim, there was hers.
She bustled past a mirror edged in rhinestone chips, past a champagne bench tufted with rhinestone buttons, toward the sound of a yipping dog.
“Hold on, poochie,” she called out, setting down her bags, kicking off her wedge Skechers. “Mommy’s coming.”
She opened a crate, and a black Shih Tzu named Berand darted around her ankles. Her large open living room and chrome-and-glass kitchen gleamed. She opened the sliding glass doors to a large fenced yard, empty but for the little Shih Tzu turning in circles, looking for a place to pee.
Upstairs, her son and daughter had their own bedrooms, as they always would.
She pointed out a gray marble dining table, where she’d propped a self-portrait with the words “Just me” on one of its benches. Her son, Maurice, had bought her the table as a housewarming gift. Now 24, he still lived with her, but his girlfriend and friends kept him often in St. Petersburg, as did his job working for Amazon. She saw less and less of him.
Her daughter, Jasmine, 27, was moving to Texas for pharmacy school.
She sat down on her charcoal leather sofa and pushed a button. The footrest elevated. Berand leapt up and crouched next to her feet. She turned on the TV, pulling up “The Young and the Restless,” which she recorded and watched every day, as she had with her grandmother, aunt and mother every day in south St. Petersburg many, many years ago.