By KEVIN WIATROWSKI
Published: January 3, 2010
NEW PORT RICHEY - Jim Koerber had considered buying the abandoned house down the street from his Regency Park home as an investment.
The 31-year-old house on Chatam Lane was a mess but could be fixed and rented.
Then one day, the "For Sale" sign vanished, and a new one appeared. The property was being remodeled by Habitat for Humanity.
The charity came in after Pasco County bought the house in September from Citibank to shore up eroding property values in an area hit hard by foreclosures. Citibank had taken the house back from its previous owner seven months earlier.
For a $7,500 developer's fee, Habitat for Humanity's west Pasco chapter repaired the house, which is back on the market for nearly $90,000.
The house is one of 185 Pasco has either bought outright or has under contract, said George Romagnoli, director of the county's community development division.
This year, Pasco qualified for nearly $20 million from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. That was the fifth-highest award in the state, an indicator of how hard the housing downturn hit Pasco's housing market.
Pasco is still waiting to hear about another round of rehab money it sought in conjunction with Pinellas County. About two-thirds of that $50 million grant would come to Pasco, much of it earmarked for the central part of the county.
Part of the money also goes toward helping buyers with down payments.
Romagnoli and his staff set to work spending that money by turning around the worst of the county's foreclosed and abandoned homes.
So far, the program has sold 35 homes. Another 40 are under repairs with 40 more on the market. The profit from home sales goes back into the county program to be used on other houses.
Pasco's program has distinguished it in the state. Recently, Pasco ranked No. 1 in Florida for the pace at which it has put its housing funds to use.
Romagnoli will give other counties some insight into Pasco's success when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development hosts a meeting of rehab funding recipients Thursday in Jacksonville.
Pasco may be succeeding at turning around its rundown housing stock, but some residents still question whether that's the best use of public money.
Koerber objects to what he sees as the county speculating in real estate - and unfairly competing with existing homeowners who may want to sell their own homes.
"I would have a harder time trying to sell my house," Koerber said. "I won't give $12,000 for a down payment."
Romagnoli said the county's not speculating.
"It's to stabilize neighborhoods and bring back property values," Romagnoli said. "We're only buying houses that need repairs."
That argument hasn't won over Koerber, though.
"Bottom line, where does this money really help anybody?" Koerber said.