NEW PORT RICHEY — Forest Spall, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and now a yoga instructor, just became a pioneer.
Spall, 47, accepted the keys to his new home Monday morning. It's an 800-square-foot, cinder-block house with exterior siding colored "rich espresso.'' It is the first home completed under Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties' redevelopment of the neighborhood known as Town & Country Villas.
Nearly everyone else knows the area simply as Leisure Lane and Van Doren Avenue, a two-street stretch of mostly dilapidated mobile homes south of Gulf Drive and west of U.S. 19 where the city of New Port Richey abuts unincorporated Pasco County.
Johannes Appelgrijn, the now retired executive director of the local Habitat chapter, didn't mince words in describing the area's reputation as a drug-infested, crime-infested neighborhood where many homes were unfit for human habitation. But last year Pasco County loaned Habitat $500,000 to acquire 43 parcels and begin a multi-year rebuild.
Spall is the newest resident, and he said the area's blight isn't a concern.
"I know what it is, and it's not a problem,'' he said. "It's an honor to be the first home coming in.''
He'll share the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with his two dogs, Trigger, a Lancashire Heeler, and Leweii, a Vizsla hound. Right now, Spall's home is surrounded by empty lots, but more Habitat clients will be moving in. The people next door will be the Browns and his three rear neighbors will be Bez and Lynn Bezuidenhout, the Rice and the Tubah families, according to the signs already staked amid the dirt.
"Imagine the whole street lined with these,'' New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe said, pointing to Spall's new house.
Spall, who moved to Florida from Indiana in 2013, has been living in Holiday. He recalled how he became interested in the project after Habitat for Humanity representatives addressed a gathering at the non-profit Veterans Alternative Therapy. It was an hour-long meeting, and Spall said there was a lot of information shared, but two things stood out: "I heard 'brand new home' and 'interest free' and I said, let's go.''
At a ceremony Monday morning, Habitat volunteers and staff members presented Spall with a new hammer, a bible, a $250 voucher and a plaque reading "Home Sweet Habitat.'' Arthur Haedke, head of the Gulf Harbors Civic Association, handed him the keys.
The civic group took the lead in raising cash and in-kind contributions totaling approximately $100,000 to build the house. Volunteers, including Spall and others affiliated with Veterans Alternative Therapy, dedicated the sweat equity estimated at up to 1,500 hours toward the construction.
The house is elevated to meet flood zone requirements and is equipped with nine wooden stairs and a metal wheelchair ramp leading from the ground to the front porch. Spall, who said he has post-traumatic stress disorder, as well and back and ankle injuries from his military service, indicated he'll use the ramp, rather than climb the staircase.
But Spall symbolically is helping the neighborhood climb, as well.
Spall and his new home, said Appelgrijn, are "beacons in this community.''
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.