TAMPA — This time last year, Mayor Bob Buckhorn climbed aboard an excavator for a ceremonial first swipe at an abandoned house in Sulphur Springs. On Wednesday, he returned to the neighborhood to begin filling a dozen vacant lots with new homes.
“We are going to rebuild this neighborhood, and we’re going to do it right,” Buckhorn told a gathering of Sulphur Springs residents, builders, charitable groups and city officials.
Over the last year, Buckhorn poured city resources into Sulphur Springs.
He expanded the number of code enforcement officials covering the neighborhood. He worked with Tampa Electric Co. to install 400 streetlights in the neighborhood.
The city has demolished dozens of abandoned and foreclosed houses in Sulphur Springs and nearby parts of North Tampa. In all, the Nehemiah Project has targeted nearly 90 houses city officials said were havens for drug use, prostitution and other crimes.
“We’re not going to let it go back to where it was,” said Neighborhood Enhancement director Jake Slater, whose division includes code enforcement. “We’re going to keep an eye on it.”
Across the North 13th Street from Wednesday’s ceremony, an orange excavator sat next to the jumbled remains of the city’s latest Sulphur Springs demolition.
The Nehemiah Project refers to the biblical figure who rebuilt Jerusalem’s ruined walls in 52 days. Buckhorn’s original plan was to tear down 52 houses on the way to redeveloping Sulphur Springs. Eventually, the plan grew to 87 houses.
“Nehemiah wasn’t just about tearing houses down,” Buckhorn said. “It’s about building the neighborhood up.”
Buckhorn said the city will put $1.4 million in federal housing money into 12 new homes on city-owned lots in Sulphur Springs. The goal is to have the houses built and ready for sale in 120 days. All the lots are close to Sulphur Springs Elementary School and the Springhill Community Center.
The city has offered nine builders the chance to bid on up to four home sites each. The houses will be sold at market rates to people who will live in them.
The profit from the sales will be rolled back into a fund to finance future construction under the city plan.
Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes Sulphur Springs, praised Buckhorn for investing in what has long been one of the city’s poorest, most crime-plagued neighborhoods.
“This is what we need. We need to live in a viable community, and the mayor has made that possible,” Reddick said. “We want to make sure we get the drug addicts and the prostitutes out this community, and today is a very good start.”
Might those drugs addicts and prostitutes just move elsewhere to become someone else’s problem?
“They’ve got to go somewhere,” Reddick said. “That’s the risk you take.”
Joseph Robinson, president of the Sulphur Springs Action League, said the new houses — and the new homeowners — will have a domino effect on the rest of the neighborhood, encouraging other residents to take care of their property.
They will also make the community less transient, he said.
“When you put something brand new on vacant lot, it stabilizes the community,” Robinson. “It brings people who want to stay.”