By KEVIN WIATROWSKI | The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 21, 2011
WESLEY CHAPEL - During the building boom of the mid-2000s, no place in the Tampa Bay area was sprouting houses like Pasco County.
At the peak of the housing boom, builders built and buyers bought thousands of new houses each year. Speculation ran rampant and people dreamed of getting rich flipping houses they'd never even seen in some cases.
All that ended with the housing collapse in 2008. Thousands of foreclosures, repossessions and abandonments later, vacant houses litter Pasco's landscape like so many cast-off toys.
The scale of the mess becomes plainly visible when comparing Census Bureau figures from the boom times of 2005-07 with recently released numbers from the 2007-09 bust years. Between those times, the number of vacant homes in Pasco County grew by 35.5 percent – the highest rate in the 11-county Tampa Bay region and one of the highest in Florida.
County leaders and residents now face the challenge of dealing with the vacant homes cluttering their communities. In recent years, two very different approaches have arisen: a federally funded program to help put new owners in old houses and a homeowner-driven effort to force vacant-home owners to maintain and, eventually, sell off their vacant houses.
After a couple years, both approaches are producing results -- and drawing criticism. It's not clear, however, which will make the biggest impact on housing.
As the housing bubble popped in 2008, the Bush administration pumped $4 billion into states, counties and cities aimed at propping up communities hit hard by foreclosures. Pasco qualified for nearly $20 million, one of the largest allocations in the country. A second wave of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding in 2009 brought Pasco another $35 million to restore its battered housing stock.
The program has returned homes across Pasco – including one former marijuana grow house in New Port Richey – to livability.
For owners, such as the Canales family of New Port Richey, Pasco's program meant the difference between continuing to rent an apartment in Clearwater and having its own home for the first time.
"I'm happy," Valeria Canales said after moving into her new home last year. "There's no banging, no people screaming, no commotion outside. At the beginning, I felt out of place. I never had it so quiet."
Romagnoli said federal funds have gone a long way toward solving Pasco's housing problem, but there still a lot to do.
"It's true that we received a lot of NSP money," Romagnoli said, "but not as much as we needed to solve the problem."
Romagnoli and NSP supporters expect the program to produce ripple effects in communities by encouraging other homeowners to improve their own property.
"You hope there's some bleedover in the neighborhood," Romagnoli said.
The federal program has its detractors, especially among housing investors upset that their own tax money is being used to bid against them for distressed homes.
Other NSP critics wonder if the homeowners Romagnoli is helping buy new homes will be able to keep up with their payments over time. Mark Spector, president of the Bridgewater homeowners association, has raised that question about the half-dozen homes the county bought in his Wesley Chapel community.
Spector has developed his own approach to rebuilding his community – put the screws to the owners of abandoned properties.
As the housing market crumbled, Spector's investor-laden community off Curley Road was one of the first in Pasco to feel the pressure. Built at the peak of the housing bubble, Bridgewater was riddled with vacant homes a year after Lennar Corp. closed shop there.
The HOA began putting liens on properties for unpaid maintenance. It invoked its right to approve tenants in rental housing. Neighborhood patrols helped reduce vandalism and petty crime.
Resident Barbara Martin is a big fan of Spector's efforts to turn Bridgewater around.
"Things are going along really well," Martin said. "We don't have all the thug mentality we used to here."
In the process, Spector inspired lots of animosity, particularly from investors, who have said the added costs make it difficult to profit from their investments.
Investors have threatened repeatedly to oust Spector as HOA president, but have failed to get enough votes to do so.
Spector said that his efforts to force owners to toe the line on upkeep, dues and tenants has convinced some owners – including many banks – to find new buyers for their homes.
"This transition from the former owners who haven't been doing anything to the banks then to the new owners has been stark," Spector said.
And, for the first time in years, Bridgewater's HOA is now operating in the black, Spector said.
Property records show that more than 60 homes changed hands in Bridgewater over last year. More than 50 of them went to people who are living in them full time. In December, the HOA's yearly meeting drew a voting majority of members for the first time – a sign things are changing for the better at Bridgewater, Spector said.
"It's been a battle to recover," Spector said last week. "We're starting to see community developing."