Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay breathes new life into low-income neighborhoods

About two-dozen volunteers joined Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay in Sulphur Springs to help revitalize the 8200 block of North Mulberry Street. It was a crisp 48 degrees on an early December Saturday morning when the work crew began toiling away on painting homes, mowing lawns and removing trash as the sun rose over the tree-lined Tampa street.  

The crew of volunteers represented various ages and income backgrounds, and they sought one common goal -- to breathe new life into historic Sulphur Springs. Within hours of their arrival on Mulberry Street, the volunteers had covered the homes at 8207 and 8211 North Mulberry with fresh coats of paint, tons of trash had been removed along the block, and new mailboxes sprouted out of the ground at 8215 and 8219 North Mulberry. Meanwhile the home at 8220 North Mulberry gleamed with its new exterior paint job, which a Rebuilding Together crew had completed just days earlier. 

By the afternoon, grass had been mowed, weeds were whacked and trash was gone. The team left behind the seeds of positive change. 

Three new homes are set for construction in the following days on the 8200 block of North Mulberry Street. New families will soon arrive on the street, and along with them new hopes and dreams for the decades-old community. 

On to the next block. 

Community helping community 

Michelle Julio is a 21-year-old psychology major attending the University of South Florida. She’s also been working at Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay since June 2016 as a content and social media manager. She says there’s a major social component to working with Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay. 

“I love talking with the volunteers and getting to know them,” she says. “I see humanity when I work with these volunteer groups. It’s the community helping the community.” 

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay started in November 2000. It is one of now more than 130 similar Rebuilding Together affiliates spread throughout the United States. Each branch in the nationwide network is tasked with the mission to help bring communities and volunteers together to make positive impacts on the neighborhoods they serve. 

According to Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay Executive Director Jose Garcia, the effort is multifaceted and is supported with the help of several key partners. 

“We combine our efforts within the community revitalization umbrella. This includes partnering with other nonprofits and their services, increasing affordable housing opportunities, rehabbing owner-occupied homes and improving the living conditions of tenant-occupied homes,” Garcia explains. 

“Corporate support and volunteer teams are very important to these goals,” he adds. As it stands, the Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay headquarters office in North Tampa employs seven people, has two contracted specialists, and relies on hundreds of volunteers to help support the local mission. 

Garcia says Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay has several projects each year, but its most important is National Rebuilding Day, an annual event held on the last Saturday in April. “We focus our work in the neighborhoods of Sulphur Springs and West Tampa within Tampa’s city limits.” 

Volunteer Coordinator Jeremy Twachtman says National Rebuilding Day often draws 200 or more volunteers who help revitalize individual homes and entire city blocks. 

“We might see 20, 30 or 40 volunteers for an event like this,” he says, speaking of the North Mulberry Street block project. “Sulphur Springs is the first neighborhood we’ve worked in with a community focus,” he adds. “We started working in Sulphur Springs in 2009.” 

Twachtman, who began working at Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay in September 2015, is not formally trained in what he does. He’s spent more than six years working for nonprofits and spent a transformative year involved in a youth missionary. He draws his volunteerism skills from personal experience. 

“We started off working on individual homes, such as those owned by disabled veterans,” he explains. “Now we’re focusing mainly on larger, community-wide efforts. We want a healthier Sulphur Springs.”

He says one of the “main vehicles” to making Sulphur Springs a healthier place is providing residents with a Healthy Home Kit. The Healthy Home Kit includes smoke detectors, carbon monoxide alarms, weather stripping, bathroom safety grab bars, and other provisions. “Our goal is making this a safer, healthier and more energy-efficient neighborhood, and the kits allow us to do that.”

Other basic improvements include installing new mailboxes with clear home address numbers, which make it easier for emergency teams to quickly identify the correct residence when responding to a call.

Volunteer Robert Davis, a member of nearby Abundant Life Worship Center, was working on installing a mailbox at a house on North Mulberry Street. “It seems small, but it’s a big thing for our community,” says Davis of the block project. “We really want to revitalize our community.” 

Building affordable homes in local neighborhoods 

Garcia excels at spearheading the neighborhood block revitalization projects, but he says there’s another major component of the mission at Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay: providing more affordable housing.

“Our affordable housing projects are spread out in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties,” says Garcia. Presently, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay is overseeing the construction of new homes in the Sulphur Springs area. 

The new homes fall under the umbrella of the City of Tampa’s Nehemiah Project, an initiative launched by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in 2013. The Nehemiah Project is named for a Biblical figure who served as governor of Persian Judea in the 5th Century B.C. and rebuilt Jerusalem’s city walls within two months. 

Tampa’s Nehemiah Project has lasted far longer than two months, and its aim isn’t to build walls but rather to build affordable homes in the city. In January 2013, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn requested Code Enforcement agents to crack down on tons of rubbish and dozens of dilapidated homes throughout the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. The cleanup process saw the demolition of 50 homes and the removal of 150 tons of trash. 

“The construction phase kicked off in January 2014 with a ground breaking,” explains Tampa Housing & Community Director Vanessa B. McCleary. “The City has been a partner with Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay for years,” she adds. “They are a longstanding partner in the city’s owner-occupied rehab program.” 

In 2014, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay partnered with Mauer & Mauer Construction to build seven homes during the first phase of the Nehemiah Project. The organization was awarded the contract for the current phase of new home construction in Sulphur Springs in summer 2016 and that August Tampa City Council approved the deal, which involves $1 million in funds and the purchase of 18 lots. 

At present, 14 homes have been built since 2014 as part of the Nehemiah Project, and 24 more homes will have been built once the current phase is complete. To date, all of these homes have been constructed in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. To purchase one of these homes through the Nehemiah Project program, one must make no more than 120 percent of the area’s median income, and prospective homeowners must participate in an eight-hour homeowner counseling class approved by the department of Housing and Urban Development. They must also invest at least $2,000 of their own funds. 

The program seems to be working so far. At present, 14 homes have been built as part of the Nehemiah Project since 2014, and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay will facilitate the completion of 18 more homes in coming months. “We have already started on them,” Garcia says. “And all 18 should be completed and sold by mid-2018.” 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.
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