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Tampa's Nehemiah Project Begins Transformation Of Sulphur Springs Neighborhood

The first newly completed Nehemiah Project home. - Julie Branaman
The first newly completed Nehemiah Project home. - Julie Branaman
Much like nearly everyone's experience in building the foundation for a new home in Florida, the Millan family's first hint of their future residence was a concrete slab. But unlike most, the Millans plan to move into a brand new home atop the slab in the slowly emerging neighborhood of Sulphur Springs.

By mid-July they will step through the front door of a 4-bedroom, bungalow-style house that will be their dream home. It is one of 11 homes being built in the initial phase of the city's Nehemiah Project, an ambitious program to tear down derelict and abandoned structures and replace them with new homes attractive to families.

These first-time homebuyers represent a welcome transformation for Sulphur Springs, family by family and block by block. City officials have designed these houses -- and more to be built in 2014 and beyond -- to seed a rebirth of the neighborhood.

"This is going to be our life-long home," says 34-year-old Joannie Melendez-Alecia. "We live budget to budget. It's something normal people like us don't get. We have to work paycheck to paycheck and struggle. It's a miracle from God."

They have been living in an Ybor City rental with their four daughters, ages 4 to 10. "We want to have a stable home life," says 36-year-old Angel Millan. "This is something that is ours."

Construction generally takes about 120 days from start to finish.

Signs Of Hope, Reasons For Optimism

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will plant a "for sale" sign in the first completed house at 8303 N. 13th St. at 10 a.m. today (Tuesday, May 13). The public is invited to tour this home and other nearby houses that are on the market.

"To create sustainable change, we need more good, steady homeowners who will take pride in their property and in the neighborhood. Those are the type of buyers we want for these new homes,'' says Buckhorn. "My hope is that our public investment will be the catalyst to transforming Sulphur Springs into the type of neighborhood that it can and should be."

Buckhorn launched the Nehemiah Project last year. About 70 structures were torn down, leaving the City of Tampa with ownership of about 25 vacant lots. In January the city announced plans to fund construction of the initial homes with about $1.4 million in federal funding from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Nehemiah is a biblical figure who rebuilt the protective wall around Jerusalem within two months.

Nine contractors are qualifed to build the homes. Financial institutions are making loans to new owners based on appraisals of each house. Early indications are that the houses will be valued at about $91,000 each. Some values could be higher, others lower.

Construction costs have been estimated at about $100,000 per house. It is not a money-making project for the city. But year by year the goal is to see property values increase. Any potential profits from home sales will be re-invested in new housing construction.

Initially, there will be seven 3-bedroom, 2-bath houses and four 4-bedroom, 2-bath houses, each ranging in size from about 1,300-square-feet to more than 1,400-square-feet. They will be built to energy efficient standards including double-paned windows and Star energy appliances.

To buy a home, applicants must get homeowner counseling and be pre-qualified for a loan. Assistance up to $14,999 is available for a down payment. For many who qualify, monthly mortgage payments will be about the same or even less than what they are paying in monthly rent. And in a new, energy efficient home, maintenance and utility bills will be lower.

"We do want it to be a model for not only Sulphur Springs but other neighborhoods as well," says Vanessa McCleary, the city's Housing and Community Development Manager.

About 18 families are on a waiting list for the homes. Some are from Sulphur Springs; others will be newcomers to the neighborhood.

"I think it's a great thing with the negative perceptions of Sulphur Springs that there were people interested in living here," says McCleary. "That tells you there is change."

Change For Good

Max Maraj has worked in Sulphur Springs for nearly 20 years, mostly on rehabilitating homes. He is general contractor with Alexander Inc. of Tampa Bay, which is building the first four houses.

He has seen the neighborhood change for the better and cites the city's decision years ago to ban new construction of duplexes as the catalyst for change.

"That's what started the whole thing so we have more homes than rentals," Maraj says.

In recent years the city and nonprofit agencies have honed in on Sulphur Springs to address on-going problems. Tampa police say crime is down 20 percent. In the past year, 150 tons of debris have been removed. More than 400 new street lights have been installed by Tampa Electric Company.

More than six years ago, the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA started the Neighborhood Promise Initiative in partnership with other nonprofits including United Way Suncoast and the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay also is partnering in stabilization efforts by completing repairs on 16 owner-occupied homes in Sulphur Springs. RTTB accesses $250,000 provided by Hillsborough County through the federally funded Community Development Block Grant program. The nonprofit agency also focuses on Tampa Heights.

"People will see the momentum going on," says Rebuilding's Executive Director Jose Garcia.

The goal is that more home ownership will create a sustainable mix of rentals and owner-occupied houses. 

"You start having homes here, you have a more stable neighborhood," says McCleary. "We want to encourage home ownership and people who haven't thought about buying a home, we want them to start thinking."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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