TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn hung out the “For Sale” sign Tuesday morning in front of the first of 11 new houses he hopes will revitalize the troubled Sulphur Springs neighborhood.
“The prognosis for this neighborhood gets better and better and better,” Buckhorn told a crowd gathered outside the house at 8303 N. 13th St. “We are committed to being here for the long run. We are not going to do this and walk away.”
Over time, Buckhorn expects to double the number of new houses in the neighborhood, building on the rest of the city's 24 vacant lots there.
The construction is being underwritten by $1.4 million in federal housing money the city received after the housing collapse in 2008. As the current crop of houses sells, the proceeds will go into building more houses under the plan put forward by the city.
Norma Robinson, who leads the Sulphur Springs Action League with her husband, Joseph, said the new housing is a welcome addition to a community dominated by absentee landlords and rentals.
“We're hoping that this will entice people to come to Sulphur Springs and invest in the community,” Norma Robinson said.
Last year, Buckhorn launched his Nehemiah Project, named after a biblical figure who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Over the course of 2013, the city demolished more than 70 houses in Sulphur Springs and neighboring parts of North Tampa.
Buckhorn declared the abandoned properties a cancer on the neighborhood. He denounced them as havens for drugs, prostitution and crime.
Buckhorn's Nehemiah Project expands on work former mayor Pam Iorio began as she, too, used federal funds to demolish abandoned properties and bank the land. As recently as last year, about 12 percent of Sulphur Springs' single-family residential lots were vacant.
Buckhorn's building plan aims to reverse decades of decline in Sulphur Springs, which was its own city until Tampa annexed it in the 1950s. About half the neighborhood's current housing stock pre-dates annexation. About 10 percent was built in the last 15 years.
Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes Sulphur Springs, welcomed the attention to the long-struggling neighborhood.
“Sulphur Springs used to be a bright, aspiring neighborhood,” Reddick said. “If we can get new growth in this community, this will be one of the brightest in the City of Tampa.”
Ashley Christie, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, has the job of selling the first 11 houses. If that old real estate chestnut about location holds true, Christie needs to persuade people to invest in one of the city's poorest locations.
“It's really about the affordable housing aspect of it,” Christie said. “We'll reach out to renters in the neighborhood.”
The sale price for the homes was still being worked out Tuesday, Christie said, but they'll likely go for $80,000 to $100,000. With city-financed down-payment assistance, prospective buyers can own for less than they rent — provided they can qualify for a bank loan, Christie said.
The houses are available to buyers with income less than 120 percent of the area's median income. That means a range from $48,200 for a single person to $68,800 for a family of four to $90,960 for a family of eight, according to city figures.
Cherie Peterson was on hand Tuesday, having qualified for a mortgage. A single mother of four, Peterson was curious about the four-bedroom house nearing completion around the block on Klondyke.
Buying a Nehemiah house would mark a return to Sulphur Springs after five years living near Ybor City, she said. While likes the vibe of Ybor City, the prospect of cutting her $1,000 monthly rent in half while building equity made the Sulphur Springs look-see worthwhile, she said.
“The attractive thing about this,” she said, “is it's a brand-new house.”