1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Pete's renewed effort on vacant homes

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has quietly reignited efforts to address vacant and dilapidated houses in some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. New staffers have been hired and, as obstacles have been removed, nonprofit and for-profit housing organizations are showing interest in working with the city. It's the kind of investment that should pay long-term dividends: Few things damage a community more than a decline in housing stock and a proliferation of boarded-up houses.

Much of the city's renewed effort can be traced to the new mayor's decision to rehire Mike Dove as administrator for neighborhood affairs. Dove was in a similar role before he retired in 2006, but his enthusiasm for the work has not waned. He maintains a packed schedule of meetings with potential investors and housing rehab groups, asking what the city needs to do to encourage them to start projects in St. Petersburg.

Dove trumpets St. Petersburg's strengths in housing — a high percentage of homesteaded properties, great parks, healthy business districts — but he also acknowledges its substantial weaknesses: old housing stock, almost 800 vacant and boarded-up homes citywide, a backlog of about 150 condemned homes awaiting demolition by the city, hundreds of vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods, and inadequate enforcement of city codes in recent years.

City Council member Karl Nurse, an investor in rehabilitating homes but also the council's most active member when it comes to affordable housing efforts, said that around a dozen housing rehab groups already have declared, "We're in." One of the most exciting developments: Builders of Hope, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that specializes in renewing urban neighborhoods, just closed on 73 vacant houses in the Midtown area and plans to renovate and resell them. Nurse found the group, introduced its leaders to Dove, and Dove took it from there.

Even some of the local housing groups Dove has met with were unaware of the city's menu of housing programs — a failure of city marketing efforts that Dove plans to rectify. Rehab groups, investors and residents need to know that the city has, to name one example, a rebate program that can return 20 percent of up to $50,000 in improvements like new roofs and plumbing for qualifying applicants.

Dove has identified another deficiency in the city's approach to housing: It has no program to motivate owners of aging apartment buildings to renovate them. As those rental properties decline, so do the values of properties around them. As the City Council begins its detailed budget discussions, members should search for a way to fund at least a rental rehab pilot program.

The city government has limited resources and can't fix all of the housing problems that confront St. Petersburg. But with City Hall's fresh burst of effort and creativity, private investors and housing groups can be convinced that there are ways to make a difference here. Over time, their projects could help reverse the declines in property values in the city's troubled neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life.