Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. News

Move-in day brings tears of joy to Plant City woman chosen for new housing program

PLANT CITY ­— Propped up temporarily on the back of a kitchen chair, leaned against a wall, sat a cross inside a frame bearing a passage from the Bible.

"Love, it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres," the passage reads. "Love never fails."

The wall hanging was awaiting a new perch, but the message is an enduring one for Barbara Collins.

On Wednesday, the 75-year-old Plant City woman started moving into a just-finished $139,000 home on some familiar ground — the parcel of land across the street from Mount Olive Baptist Church where she has lived for 47 years.

Collins is one of 12 people whose homes are being rebuilt from the ground up through a partnership between the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County's Affordable Housing Services Department.

She had raised her kids in the old house, working at South Florida Baptist Hospital and as a teacher's aide, before she was derailed by health problems and a number of surgeries.

She took up volunteering, feeding the homeless at the church and babysitting neighbors' children. Her son, Navy veteran Benny Jones, 49, lives with her and cares for his mother.

But over the last five years, the 100-year-old house began sinking. Jones would wake after a rain to find a room flooded and spend hours each day pumping out water.

Collins visited with friends outside but never invited them in, embarrassed by the moisture and the mold.

"It took a lot out of me," she said. "I was drained."

Her daughter, Angela Smith, works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and heard about the Rebuilding Together program.

READ MORE Program helps Tampa Bay homes at risk of falling into disrepair

The program was designed to help low-income residents whose houses have passed the point of repair. To qualify, a house must be free of mortgage or debts. Hillsborough County places a lien of 20 years on the house to discourage flipping and it can be passed on to relatives if they qualify for the program, too.

"Homeowners in their late 60s or 70s, they've worked so many years to pay it off but the house is falling apart," said Jose Garcia, executive director of Rebuilding Together, a Tampa-based organization with a staff of four that boasts some 460 volunteers. "It preserves home ownership and family unity."

The $2 million program is funded by Hillsborough County. So far, eight homes are in the pipeline and four more eligible candidates are being sought. Anyone interested in applying can call (813) 878-9000, extension 5.

The next recipient is Bill Canty of Lutz, a military veteran who lived in a mobile home damaged by a storm. The county condemned his property and informed him he's eligible for a new home. He's moving in soon.

"I won the lottery and I haven't played the lottery in my life," Canty quipped.

The county hopes to expand the program once it evaluates the outcome of the first 12 projects, Garcia said.

Smith said she is relieved her mother and brother now have a safe place to live again.

"For so many years we've been battling the water," Smith said. "Now I don't have to worry when it rains."

Collins had her own ideas about how to express her gratitude.

"I just give God thanks," she said. "I hope he gives me a couple years to enjoy the house."

Contact Divya Kumar at Follow @divyadivyadivya