A steep jump in prices has left many in the working class with little chance at home ownership.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published February 15, 2004
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Homes like this one, in St. Petersburg's Kenwood neighborhood, have seen stunning increases in their property values the past five years.
ST. PETERSBURG - Selena Edwards tried to keep her expectations modest as she searched for her first house.
She didn't dream of a waterfront cottage or fashionable craftsman bungalow. All she wanted was a neat, tidy home, preferably in the Tyrone area west of downtown. Her price limit was about $100,000.
"I wanted some place I could settle down and live the rest of my days," said Edwards, 53. "Someplace I could picture myself wandering around with a walker."
Edwards scanned the ads. She attended a home-buying class. She fell in love with several houses. Then she heard the prices.
"It's not like buying a dress," Edwards said, shaking her head. "You look at these homes and they're gorgeous and they're beautiful and you think you can afford them. But it's just too expensive."
Edwards is one of a growing number of people who are being priced out of St. Petersburg, a once affordable city, as the cost of housing has skyrocketed over the past five years.
Real estate prices are rising throughout the Tampa Bay area, but St. Petersburg is on a steeper incline than many other cities. The median home price jumped 58 percent over the past five years. That's 8 percentage points higher than the increase in Pinellas County over the same time period.
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In 1998, the median St. Petersburg home cost about $73,000. Today, it's more than $115,000.
The problem isn't limited to people in lower income brackets. Middle class buyers are being shut out of neighborhoods near downtown such as Kenwood or Old Northeast. Meanwhile, residents who bought property several years ago can't afford to move to a bigger house or nicer neighborhood.
The lack of affordable housing in St. Petersburg is rapidly becoming one of the biggest issues facing the city.
"We don't want to become another Palm Beach," said Tom DeYampert, the city's housing and community development manager. "Our diversity is what made so many people want to live here in the first place."
The Old Northeast ripple effect
With the exception of a few neighborhoods in Midtown, the economically struggling area south of Central Avenue, almost every part of the city experienced some increase over the past five years.
The epicenter of the housing boom is the historic Old Northeast neighborhood, which reaches from Fourth Street North to Tampa Bay, and from 5th to 30th Avenues N.
The median home price increased 84 percent in the past five years, from $134,150 to $247,000. And that surge has had a ripple effect, triggering higher prices in other neighborhoods close to downtown such as Crescent Lake and Euclid-St. Paul.
But significant appreciation isn't limited to those neighborhoods. The area known as Historic Uptown, which also is adjacent to downtown, underwent the most dramatic change.
Ingrid Comberg, former president of Uptown's neighborhood association, remembers that just a few years ago the neighborhood was notorious for drugs and prostitution. A home seller was lucky to get $30,000 for a property.
The median home price in Uptown has jumped a staggering 204 percent since 1998.
Now a two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow on 8th Avenue N is listed at $169,900. Another house on 6th Street N recently sold for $200,000.
The house Comberg bought with her husband, Hartmut, in 1986 has more than tripled in value.
"Some people like to live in a boring neighborhood where there's nothing going on," Comberg said. "But more and more people seem to want something with a little challenge. They want to live somewhere a little more exciting."
Many Realtors say the increase in real estate prices is partially due to the awakening of downtown St. Petersburg, thanks to an influx of luxury condominium towers and the success of BayWalk, the new shopping and entertainment complex.
Deputy Mayor Mike Dove credited the focus on quality of life in the neighborhoods that began under Mayor David Fischer and continued under Mayor Rick Baker. Over the past decade, the city has spent millions targeting crime and code complaints in troubled areas. Amenities such as dog parks also have sprung up around the city.
The private sector played a major role. Savvy buyers with an eye for architecture and design snapped up dilapidated bungalows and rehabilitated them. The renovated houses, many of which feature elements such as hardwood floors and working fireplaces, are fetching record prices.
For the city, this means a big boost in revenue from property taxes. In 1998, the city collected $50.2-million from homeowners. By 2003, the figure had climbed to $68.5-million. This year, the city is projecting $73.6-million.
The downside of high prices
But the sharp increase in housing costs isn't all good news, especially for a city struggling to attract young families.
"I've lost some clients," said Greg Burton, a Realtor who specializes in St. Petersburg properties. "They're saying it's simply not worth the price."
Burton has watched the definition of an affordable house shift during the five years he has been a Realtor. When he started, it was fairly common to find houses for about $100,000. Now, a buyer is lucky to find something in the $130,000-$150,000 range, he said.
It can jolt even the most prepared home buyers. Burton said he was surprised when he tried to find a house for himself last year in the Euclid-St. Paul neighborhood. He wanted to spend about $150,000 and was amazed at how difficult it was to find something in that price range.
"I got sticker shock," Burton said, "and I do this for a living."
Gretchen Clearwater, 30, looked for weeks and couldn't find anything suitable in her price range. A St. Petersburg native, she always wanted to find a house in the city where she grew up. But on a dental hygienist's salary, it's no easy task.
"I was surprised at how difficult it is to find something in my price range," Clearwater said. "So many of the houses are so expensive."
Council member John Bryan, a retired home builder and commercial property manager, said he viewed the lack of reasonably priced three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes as St. Petersburg's next big crisis. He and council member Rene Flowers have called for the creation of a committee to study the problem.
"If we don't do something, we're going to become the next Orange County, Calif., and we don't want that to happen," Bryan said.
He said he is afraid some business owners might bypass St. Petersburg because of the lack of affordable housing for their employees.
Bryan's concern increased after talking to Karen White, who became dean of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in April. While she bought a home in the Old Northeast, the staff members who accompanied White from the University of Nebraska at Omaha had to look outside the city for housing.
"These are people who are professor types, making about $60-$70,000 per year," Bryan said. "And they couldn't find what they needed in St. Petersburg. That's not good."
The problem is even more dramatic for lower-income residents.
As the housing boom extends south of Central Avenue into the traditionally depressed area of the city, property owners who once rented their homes are selling them, hoping to cash in on rising prices, said Tom DeYampert, who manages the city's Housing and Community Development section.
But many renters can't afford to make the leap to home ownership, leaving them with fewer options.
There's no easy remedy. The city provides millions of dollars in zero interest loans based on income level through its Working to Improve Neighborhoods program. But as housing costs rise and salary increases fail to keep up, those loans may not be enough to help working class families.
"That's when you have to look at other alternatives, such as rentals and apartment buildings," DeYampert said.
Unlike many other cities, St. Petersburg has few apartment buildings in the inner city. So as city planners rewrite land development regulations, they are including some higher density uses, an effort to make space in a built-out city.
Bob Jeffrey, the city's manager of urban design and historic preservation, said officials hope to entice more developers to build affordable townhomes and apartments along the city's major corridors, such as First Avenue S.
City officials are encouraging other low-cost options. Last May, they announced a partnership with New Millennial Homes, a Tampa realty corporation that specializes in affordable housing, to build about 20 new homes in neighborhoods throughout the city. The homes were priced between $87,900 and $124,900.
The demand for these homes far outweighs the supply. For Selena Edwards, the search for a home was too discouraging. She gave up in January, frustrated by the high prices and lack of available loans.
For now, she'll remain in her one-bedroom apartment.
"It's too bad," Edwards said. "If you've had any adversity in your life at all, the American dream of owning your own home is out of reach in this city. And that's a shame."