TAMPA — When the 2008 financial crash brought down the nation's housing market, hundreds of home builders went out of business. Among them was Sharon McSwain Homes in Atlanta, forced to liquidate in 2009.
But just as developers like to develop, builders like to build. McSwain moved to Florida, and, even before the recovery had begun, she identified Tampa as the place for a comeback. She began buying old houses and vacant lots at fire-sale prices.
"The decline (in the city) was not as deep as in the suburbs, and it had stabilized in advance of the suburbs,'' McSwain says. "It seemed like a better place to restart.''
Eight years later, Domain Homes — McSwain's new company — is one of the largest urban infill builders in the Tampa Bay area. It has built more than 600 houses in older neighborhoods from Seminole Heights, Riverside Heights, North Hyde Park and West Tampa to Roser Park, Palmetto Park and Euclid-St. Paul in St. Petersburg.
In March, Tampa's City Council approved plans for the company to erect 75 houses for first-time, income-eligible buyers in a blighted area between downtown and Ybor City. Domain is in talks with St. Petersburg officials about a similar proposal there.
But the company's impressive growth — annual sales are $55 million to $60 million — has not been without controversy.
Drive through any of the above-mentioned neighborhoods and it's easy to spot a Domain house: two stories, columns with stacked-stone bases, plain exterior walls. Critics say the company produces cookie-cutter homes that can be jarringly out of place with existing ones.
"Domain keeps throwing out something that looks like it belongs in a gated suburban community,'' says Rick Fifer, a Realtor who specializes in the vintage one-story bungalows of Seminole Heights. "When somebody like Domain moves in, they're literally changing the entire fabric of the neighborhood.''
On one block of Tampa's Woodlynne Avenue, all but one of the mid-century houses on the west side of the street have been torn down, replaced by six very similar Domain homes. Next to St. Petersburg's historic Euclid school, built of brick in the 1920s, Domain erected eight nearly identical stuccoed houses.
McSwain says Domain has been responsive to the criticism.
"We started off with a product mix of five houses; today we have 25,'' she says. "I try to always listen and (to) always be looking at better, more creative ways of serving the market's needs while simultaneously blending into the existing community. We trust at the end we do way more good for a community than detriment to the community.''
Despite what others might say about them, buyers seem to like Domain houses. They have paid an average of $475,000 for them, even on busy streets or in what are tactfully called "transitional'' areas.
Jane Coleman and her husband had admired Domain houses in Tampa, so they decided to have one built in St. Petersburg. Last year, they moved from a smaller 1920s home nearby to the four-bedroom, three-bath house with room for a pool.
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"We wanted to stay in this area, and we wanted new construction,'' she said. "Now that we have three kids, we're not the re-doer type.''
The Colemans' neighbors also live in a Domain house.
"They're happy,'' she says. "We're all happy.''
• • •
After college, McSwain, now 59, played tennis on the pro circuit before realizing she wasn't as good as she needed to be. That's when she decided to get into home-building, spending 10 years with a Georgia company run by her father and brother, then 15 years with her own company.
Both firms were what McSwain calls "volume production builders,'' putting up several hundred houses a year. They did well until the crash.
McSwain moved to Daytona Beach, where her family had vacationed. She took a few months to enjoy being with her daughter, who was about to enter first grade.
"Then it was clear to me that I needed to get back up on the horse that had thrown me, which was the building business,'' she says. "We had fallen in love with the quality of life in Florida, but my gut instinct was that Tampa was going to recover more quickly than Daytona was.''
In late 2009, McSwain reached out to Kevin Robles, who had worked for the Tampa division of her father's company. Every week, they scouted out the kind of suburban areas both were used to — Brandon, Riverview, Apollo Beach. They felt the markets there had yet to hit bottom, so one day at lunch, McSwain suggested a different approach.
"I said, 'Have you ever thought about the scattered-lot business and maybe trying to apply our volume experience?'?" she says. That afternoon, Robles introduced her to areas in Tampa south of Gandy Boulevard.
"We built a plan around buying lots one at a time in urban infill — predominantly built-out areas — and providing new-home opportunities at a value,'' McSwain says.
They decided to start in Port Tampa, a historic neighborhood where many homes were in foreclosure and no new ones were being built. They also liked its proximity to MacDill Air Force Base and a constant supply of newcomers who needed housing. With money borrowed from her parents, McSwain bought five bank-owned lots and built five houses.
"It was the influence of MacDill that made such an impact on our success,'' she says. "Early on, eight out of every 10 sales we did had some relationship directly or indirectly with MacDill.''
In 2011, Domain's first full year in business, its Port Tampa houses sold for an average of $225,000. Today, the same houses would resell for $450,000.
From Port Tampa, Domain spread to the Ballast Point area south of Gandy. Around three years ago, it began moving north of Kennedy Boulevard to a less enthusiastic response.
• • •
On a recent morning, Fifer, the real estate agent, drove through Seminole Heights and nearby neighborhoods, pointing out new houses by Domain and other builders.
"You can almost tell Domain by the lack of windows and crappy porches,'' Fifer said. In an area beloved for its bungalows with big porches and wraparound windows, many Domain houses have comparatively small porches with one or two little windows on a vast expanse of side wall.
"The hard part is getting Domain to show some sensitivity,'' Fifer continued. "We've had other builders coming in here for as long as 20 years, but there's been an emphasis on having something that fits the character of the area. These Domain places could be in Tampa Palms or Wiregrass.''
Elizabeth Strom, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida, says urban infill doesn't have to replicate houses built decades earlier. "We expect different things today," but ideally should fit in with the area.
"Where there is a prevailing style that gives the community its charm, there's value in visual harmony that translates into giving people a sense of community and belonging,'' she says.
Domain also drew flak in St. Petersburg as it and other builders began knocking down small homes and putting up larger ones with little variation in style.
In response to complaints, the City Council last year approved zoning changes designed to reduce the "Big Box'' look. Among the requirements: New houses close to each other must vary in at least three ways, such as roof form and window style.
Domain now has "one- and two- story floor plans in a variety of architectural styles,'' Elizabeth Abernethy, the city's zoning official, said in an email this week. "This variety allows them to meet the repetitive design criteria that we added to the code.''
On 28th Avenue N, Domain is selling one of its newer Ibis models, a one-story bungalow with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage.
Compared to what a similar home would cost nearer downtown, the $350,000 price is reasonable. The location, though, might give some buyers pause. To one side is a nail salon and large parking lot; to the other are far more modest houses.
Yet this is the kind of area Domain looks for. McSwain notes that the typical Domain buyer is a young professional couple that wants to be close to urban amenities and doesn't mind a place still a little rough around the edges.
"They don't want to drive 45 minutes or an hour (to the suburbs); they are willing to live on a transitional street,'' McSwain says. "We are not a high-end, custom infill builder. We expand the urban market, and we revitalize areas.''
One evidence of that: a Domain house in a St. Petersburg area once frequented by vagrants sold last year for $433,000 — $94,200 more than the seller paid in 2014.
• • •
Though not high-end, Domain houses are beyond the reach of many in the Tampa Bay area. McSwain wants to change that with the company's Urban 360 project.
In partnership with the city of Tampa, Domain is paying $1 per lot for land near Nebraska Avenue where it will build houses priced from the high $100,000s to low $200,000s. Buyers can make no more than 140 percent of the area's median income — $51,115 — and could be eligible for up to $40,000 in down payment assistance.
Work on the first 10 houses is due to start by July 1. Domain also is building what McSwain envisions as a community center with Saturday market, yoga classes and the like.
"Our partnership is about way more than an affordable house; it's about empowering a people and a community,'' she says.
Elsewhere, Domain is constantly snapping up old houses and vacant lots — this month it paid $532,000 for several lots in St. Petersburg's Central Oak Park area off Fifth Avenue N. And the company's high-volume infill model has been successful enough that McSwain and Robles, Domain's chief operating officer, are considering expansion to cities like Orlando and Jacksonville. (McSwain still lives in Daytona Beach, fairly close to both.)
As her company continues to grow, rising land prices, not rising mortgage rates, are what worry McSwain the most.
"I don't know that income is rising as rapidly as our land is,'' she says. "A lot I bought in 2011 for $30,000 in Port Tampa would cost me $85,000 today.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate