Ready for rebirth
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
PORT RICHEY -- When Richard Center moved into Holiday Hill, U.S. 19 was a two-lane highway, roosters woke him at dawn and Gulf View Square mall was a pasture.
Retired and middle-aged couples from the Northeast thought they struck gold, buying plots of land to build small concrete-block homes for $5,990.
"When we first came in, people used to work like crazy to make the houses nice," said Center, 76, who moved in with his wife and son in 1968.
Times have changed.
Though Center doesn't have too many complaints about his block, many of the homes in the subdivision are ridden with overgrown grass or cars on the lawn. Sagging garage roofs and bland white homes dot the streets between cared-for houses with aqua-blue trim and landscaped yards of clipped shrubs and potted plants.
In the days of a hot real estate market, values here are dropping, county officials say.
Holiday Hill's story is the same throughout west Pasco and other growth spots of Florida.
The homes that first attracted retired residents to Pasco are now selling for around $40,000 to $60,000 and becoming a magnet for young working families. Some are renting. Many, working jobs and raising children, are too busy or cash-strapped to make improvements to the homes that former owners once did.
And the retired residents are dying, renting out the homes or moving away to deed-restricted communities where upkeep is enforced, real estate brokers say.
As central Pasco blossoms with wealthy subdivisions, west Pasco is getting left behind.
Now the county is stepping in. Pushed by County Commissioner Peter Altman, the commission in late July announced plans to target three deteriorating neighborhoods. Holiday Hill is one; the others are Brown Acres in Port Richey and Sunnydale in Hudson.
The key to revitalization is community participation. The county wants to get residents on board first before taking bigger steps. If there's a will, the county will find the financial way. For instance, options include homebuyer assistance loans, drainage improvements, grants for home improvement and stricter code enforcement.
Another possibility is an informal tax-increment financing district. That means the county would pay upfront for certain improvements -- like new sidewalks, drainage or brush clearing -- and get reimbursed with increases in property values.
"The purpose of this is to improve the value of these communities and also the quality of life in these communities," Altman said recently. "I think there's a recognition that we have some decay and we have a role to play in focusing some of these funds on the people on this side of the county."
Altman said the county can't force renting residents to buy or landlords to sell, though the Community Development Department has programs to help struggling buyers.
"I wouldn't see it as a failure if home ownership didn't rise, provided that the attitude of renters included in the process rose to the occasion to say, "We're going to work harder as well,' " Altman said.
County Commissioner Steve Simon, a former real estate teacher, disagrees.
He says home ownership is crucial in revitalizing neighborhoods.
"The renter has no incentive," Simon said.
But renters need to understand what they stand to gain by buying, particularly in a time when monthly mortgage bills are cheaper than rent payments.
Take a young family that buys a $40,000 house with no down payment, Simon estimated. In a revitalized neighborhood with 5-percent increases in market value a year, it would have about $5,000 in equity after two years of payments. "You're going to tell me that they'd be able to accumulate that much money in another fashion?" Simon said. "Or you can pay rent for two years and have what?"
Bob Memoli, real estate broker at Florida Luxury Realty in West Pasco, has been selling homes in Holiday Hill for the past nine years.
To calculate payments on a 30-year mortgage for a $60,000 house, he used a 3-percent down payment, though he said loans now are available for zero down-payments. After taxes, insurance and a 7-percent interest rate, the monthly mortgage bill would be about $530 for the two-bedroom homes, he said.
"Where are you going to rent for $530 that's decent?" Memoli said.
But buying the house is not the only problem, he said.
Once they're homeowners, struggling couples with children, working retail or other low-paying jobs, don't have the cash to buy plants or paint the house.
"That's hard to do when they are living day to day and paycheck to paycheck," he said. "Just because you don't have a lot of money doesn't mean you're pigs."
For revitalization to succeed, the county must offer homeowners grant money or other funds to help with the maintenance, he said. And homeowners, particularly seniors with no interest in selling, must realize that property tax increases are capped at 3 percent a year under Save our Homes, a state program.
Memoli predicts that market values of homes in Holiday Hill could shoot up to $100,000 to $120,000 in three years. But the entire community must participate.
"You can't get 15 percent of the people to do it."
Residents like Nathan Arthur are going to need some convincing.
Arthur, 27, and his wife, 25-year-old Jamie, live in a cramped house on Unicorn Avenue with two sons and a daughter, ages 5 and younger.
They rent for a little more than $600 a month, though Arthur calculated he'd pay about $400 a month in a mortgage payment if he purchased the home for between $38,000 and $45,000.
Still, he refuses to buy it.
"We want a bigger place, and we want property," Arthur said one recent afternoon, sorting through a small garage packed with boxes, a mattress and toys. His truck and car sat in the driveway and overgrown yard. The truck, like many of the cars and vehicles in the neighborhood's driveways, won't fit into the small garage even without the boxes.
"We needed a place, and this was quick," he said.
They've lived in the 1,000-square-foot house for a year. It has three bedrooms now that he converted the back porch into sleeping quarters for his daughter.
Though they plan to be in the house another two or three years, Arthur says he and his wife don't have the money to sink into repairs. The owner handles them.
His wife holds two jobs as a waitress. He's unemployed, formerly working jobs in construction and convenience stores.
"We're not really looking right now (to buy)," he said. "We have car payments."
He just sold $1,000 worth of baseball cards for $100 "so I could get my daughter school supplies," he said.
He's looking for work, taking care of the kids and getting to the household chores when he can, Arthur said, pointing to the grass. His mower was borrowed by a relative and then stolen.
"I just haven't had time to mow it," he said. "With my wife working two shifts a day, I can't leave my kids in the house to mow the lawn."
Jack Kinney, 62, doesn't think Holiday Hill needs major surgery. Just maybe a facelift.
Kinney, who bought his house in the subdivision in 1984, said he's offended that Holiday Hill was included in the revitalization program.
"This is not the ghetto," Kinney said, cruising through the neighborhood, pointing down streets where boats and basketball nets line driveways.
Some younger working families just need some help with maintenance, he said. Others need a push.
"It's not that you have houses with broken windows," he said. "It's just aesthetics, a little bit of pride. . . .
"If the county wants to help out, let them give all these people a lawn mower."
-- Staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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