PolitiFact Florida: Bob Buckhorn's Tampa housing initiative moves the needle

Published Jan. 26, 2014

TAMPA — It was one of his boldest campaign promises, but this time last year Mayor Bob Buckhorn described the city's efforts to create housing partnerships as "sporadic and scattershot."

His promise: to create a housing program modeled on the Mayor's Challenge Fund, the nationally acclaimed initiative that Buckhorn saw up-close in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was a special assistant to then-Mayor Sandy Freedman.

Buckhorn's promise was detailed, specific — and one of 34 being tracked by the Buck-O-Meter, a project of PolitiFact Florida, the political fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times. During his first year in office, he pledged, helping first-time home buyers find affordable housing and rehabilitating existing homes would be a priority.

He also promised to help buyers with "down payment assistance, reduction in origination fees, reduced interest rates, streamlined loan applications and assistance in preparing and packaging the loans."

But by early 2013, the midpoint of his four-year term, Buckhorn conceded the city's housing efforts had not gotten his undivided attention. They were, he said, not comprehensive, not organized, fractured.

Fast-forward one year.

Last week, Buckhorn rolled out the second phase of a project to help Sulphur Springs. This phase consists of building new, affordable homes — though not for the reasons or in the ways he described as a candidate.

The city will spend $1.4 million in federal housing funds to build 12 single-family houses in Sulphur Springs over 120 days, with more to follow if all goes as planned. As those houses are built and sold, the city intends to plow the proceeds into building more houses.

City Hall can do this because it spent 2013 preparing the ground in Sulphur Springs. It spent up to $7,000 per house tearing down more than 30 vacant, abandoned homes.

It also added police patrols, assigned three code enforcement officers full-time to the neighborhood, hauled off 150 tons of trash and debris, worked with Tampa Electric to install 408 streetlights and trimmed trees blocking those lights.

Buckhorn calls the effort the Nehemiah Project for a biblical figure who rebuilt the walls of a destroyed Jerusalem. With Nehemiah, he said, "it wasn't just about tearing down the walls. It was about rebuilding the city."

So is this Buckhorn's promised version of the Challenge Fund?

"This is the beginning," he said. "The Challenge Fund, as successful as it was — it was a different time, a different time in our economy, a different time in terms of the number of foreclosures and delinquent mortgages that we have. For today's time, this is the beginning of what I think the next iteration of the Challenge Fund will look like."

So how about the kinds of assistance — help with down payments, low interest rates and reduced-cost loans — that Buckhorn promised?

"We're not there yet," he said. As "this program matures, hopefully we'll be able to incorporate all that stuff. … We may find as we go through this economy that this may not be doable."

There are other differences, too. Under Freedman, the Challenge Fund had extensive relationships with nonprofit organizations that often oversaw the construction and renovations.

For now, the city is assuming that role.

"The recession took its toll on our nonprofit providers," Buckhorn said, especially those that built houses. "If this program is successful, there will be opportunities for nonprofits to participate." At the moment, he said, "I want to get this started. I don't want this to languish."

The Challenge Fund also helped buyers by providing them with deferred second mortgages to be repaid once they sold the house.

Again, Buckhorn said, it's too soon to say, though he expects to be "willing to look at numerous options." Still, federal community development funds that would help have been cut back.

Finally, there is a difference in the larger goals.

Buckhorn the candidate talked about helping first-time home buyers and rehabilitating houses.

Buckhorn the mayor is focused on one particularly troubled neighborhood.

The crush of foreclosed and abandoned houses makes Sulphur Springs' problems "different than what we had in the '80s and '90s," he said.

"We're doing the best we can to stop the bleeding in a neighborhood that desperately needs it," he said. "This is our toughest neighborhood. This is where we have our most challenges. Those abandoned houses were exacerbating the law enforcement side of things and the need for social services, so we had to come in."

The Buck-O-Meter, which previously rated Buckhorn's record on this promise as "Stalled," last week changed its rating to "In the Works."

Meanwhile, civic leaders in Sulphur Springs welcome the city's coordinated approach of more police, more code enforcement and new housing.

"You have to have all of those things," said Linda Hope, a founder of the Sulphur Springs Action League. "It's not even a three-pronged stool. It's like five or six."

"It looks like a different community," said neighborhood association president Joseph Robinson.

That's good, he said, because "people buy into change. They don't buy into stagnation. They buy into something different and new that allows them to play a part, because they all want to play a part. They just need someone to start the ball rolling."