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One Hillsborough woman’s journey to find an affordable first home

She had rented in the Ruskin community without knowing it was built for new homeowners just like her.
 
Dana-Lise Acevedo, a single mother of two children, right, packs dishes inside a box as she prepares to move into a new home in Ruskin last month.
Dana-Lise Acevedo, a single mother of two children, right, packs dishes inside a box as she prepares to move into a new home in Ruskin last month. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published July 12, 2023|Updated July 16, 2023

RUSKIN — Dana-Lise Acevedo says she’s taken her two young kids on so many home tours they’ve started to find it fun: They’ve made games out of running through hallways and fighting over empty rooms.

At the end of May, she brought them along to check out a four-bedroom house in Ruskin knowing this one was different. This home would soon be theirs.

The property is in Sunset, the latest addition in a community of houses called Bayou Pass Village. It has a front lawn, a metal roof, and is fitted with solar panels to cut down on energy bills. It’s nice, Acevedo said, even nicer than she had hoped.

The 34-year-old single mother chose a hard time to become a homeowner with supply limited and prices soaring beyond the means of many young working adults. After searching for five years, finding stable work and repairing her credit, she still needed nearly perfect timing and luck.

“I’ve been playing the long game,” she said.

Her fortunes finally turned one day when she looked at a flyer she had recycled so many times before.

The journey begins

Acevedo moved to Florida from North Carolina in 2016, when she got pregnant with her son, to be with her parents. It was an unplanned pregnancy and an unplanned move, but she needed her village.

To make it work, she surrendered her car to get out of payments and cut her credit card spending dramatically. As soon as her son was born, she started a part-time retail job.

Two years later, when she got pregnant with her second child, she found an affordable place in a cute new neighborhood in Ruskin, close to her parents’ house. Things started getting easier, until February 2020, when she lost her job in the first wave of pandemic layoffs.

Everything about the way she spent money once again changed overnight.

Nine frugal months later, she reentered the job market, switching to a bank job. She learned about fraud protection and money market accounts. And she realized she had to be intentional, not just cautious, if she was serious about owning a home.

But when her lease ended in January 2023, she had nowhere to go. Her only option was back with her parents. As she was packing up, she saw the flyer.

It was from an organization called the Florida Home Partnership, and it said they built the community she was living in, Bayou Pass. The vast majority of the homes in the complex, she learned, actually belonged to low-income people who received down-payment assistance or helped build their home.

Even though they weren’t advertising any specific properties, she pulled up the website and put her contact information down on every mailing list they had. This could be it, she thought, her path to finally owning a home.

A fortunate turn

Michael Morina, the executive director of the Florida Home Partnership, said Acevedo’s story isn’t unique.

He said that his organization has been struggling to keep up with the demand for affordable homes in the area. Rents throughout Tampa Bay have risen fast with an influx of people and investors, but so too have the prices of building materials.

Ruskin was not long ago known for its tomato farms. The arrival of a 1.1-million-square-foot Amazon distribution center in 2016 signaled that the landscape was about to change.

In 2018, the median sale price for a home in Ruskin approached $220,000. As of May, it’s nearly $360,000, according to real estate company Redfin, a 64% increase.

Morina said household incomes have not kept up. To qualify for homes offered by Florida Home Partnership, a family of four can make no more than 80% of Tampa Bay’s area median income. That number has increased 35%, to $69,500 in 2023, compared to $51,100 five years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Florida Home Partnership built the first stage of Bayou Pass in Ruskin in 2005. Over the past 15 years, it’s grown to include over 800 properties, all belonging to low-income families.

“If you drive through our subdivision you’ll see virtually no for-sale signs,” said Morina. “We have parks and pools and playing fields, stuff I certainly didn’t have growing up.”

Vanessa Josie, the FHP’s chief operating officer and a former Bayou Pass resident herself, said rental units like the one Acevedo lived in are rare. Most residents stay in their homes for 10 to 15 years after construction is completed.

“It is not your starter home, it’s your forever home for most of our clients,” said Josie.

A lucky draw

Acevedo spent the first few months after moving back in with her parents saving money and touring homes. She knew what she was looking for: a place where she could work from home and separate bedrooms her two children could make their own.

But her income made it look impossible. Even after repairing her credit, getting promoted and making the sacrifice of moving back in with her parents, it seemed unlikely.

“Rising costs, shady Realtors, I’ve been through some crazy stuff in this past year,” Acevedo said.

Then, she got an email from one of the Florida Homes Partnership mailing lists she signed up for in January.

It said the company was taking applications for seven new homes, each three or four bedrooms and with all the features Acevedo wanted. They were partially financed by Hillsborough County and they were reserved for first-time homebuyers making less than 80% of area median income, or $62,550 for a family of three in 2023. Acevedo checked that box.

The email also said the first 20 applicants would be eligible for an interview, so she rushed to fill it out. Morina said they got far more applications than they expected, but eventually Acevedo got notice that she was selected for the interview.

Nervously, she collected all the documents she needed for the application: Social Security cards for herself and kids, tax records, bank statements and pay stubs. She said most of the interview was going over numbers, which she understood, thanks to her newfound financial knowledge.

The house costs $245,000 and Acevedo says she planned to request about $25,000 of the available $35,000 for down-payment assistance. If she got it, and continued to be as careful as she had been with her spending, she felt like she could do it.

Passing the financial screening, which she felt confident about, would only get her into a lottery. After five unsuccessful years of searching and planning, she didn’t have much faith in her luck.

A few weeks after the interview, she got the call. For the first time since she graduated from college, she felt like her hard work and sacrifice was going to pay off. In two months, she’d be moving into a new home, her home.

Home awaits

It’s been a long wait, Acevedo said. The Florida Home Partnership advises against spending too much money on furnishings before everything is finalized, so she’s mostly been holding her breath and tracking her expenses.

After touring the home in May, she did buy a couple of things: a futon for her office, some patio furniture. She always wanted her own patio.

To her, owning a home means everything. It’s something she can pass on to her children, a place she doesn’t have to worry about being kicked out of and her “own little world” all in one.

She said her kids know but haven’t really understood it yet. They’re 7 and 4.

“It won’t be real for them until we really move in,” she said. “They picked out their rooms and they saw where their beds and toys are going to go, but we’re not there yet.

“It’s not different from any other move to them yet.”

Times data editor Langston Taylor and staff writer Rebecca Liebson contributed to this report.