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Turning down a virtually free house

Nine families have declined Habitat for Humanity's offer for a house in St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park over concerns about crime and the neighborhood. 

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published February 9, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG — The house is neat and new, with three bedrooms, white concrete walls and a pretty lawn. And no family searching for a deal could ask for a more generous seller: Habitat for Humanity.

But it seems Habitat can’t find a buyer willing to live in Bartlett Park, even in a brand new house that comes with a zero percent interest loan.

Since last July, Habitat officials have offered the house at 701 15th Ave. S to nine families. All nine turned it down.
“They say, 'It’s a nice house, but I’m afraid of the area,’” said Barbara Inman, the executive director of the Pinellas County chapter of Habitat for Humanity. “They say, 'It looks like a bad area.’”

Inman says the repeated rejection of a Habitat house is unprecedented in the area. Nationally, she said, “it’s very, very rare.”

The nine families earned between 30 and 80 percent of the area’s median income, which is required to qualify for Habitat’s home program. Seven of the families are black; two are white. Habitat officials declined to identify the families for privacy reasons.

All came from the St. Petersburg area, Inman said, and all told Habitat officials the neighborhood felt unsafe. They cited the men lingering on street corners and fears of drug-related violence.

They’ve all since moved to other Habitat properties in different parts of St. Petersburg or other parts of Pinellas, including Largo.

Police officials say they’re surprised, especially since records show that violent crime has been inching downward in Bartlett Park in recent years.

The number of violent crimes fell from 175 in 2005 to 127 in 2006. But the number of total crimes rose slightly last year, largely due to an increase in burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts.

Still, crime in Bartlett Park has decreased since the late 1990s in most categories.

“There’s been tremendous strides made in Bartlett Park,” said assistant chief of police Luke Williams, who cited crime figures and rising property values. “This is an area that’s growing and thriving.”

Williams said some people may reject the idea of living in Bartlett Park based on their perceptions and preconceptions about the neighborhood rather than the reality of life there.

“I think it’s all in how it’s marketed,” Williams said.

Scott Swift, the vice president of the Bartlett Park neighborhood association and an active crime watch member, agreed that the neighborhood had improved in recent years. Drug dealers aren’t as blatant in dealing on street corners because of aggressive police work in recent months, Swift said.

So why can’t Habitat sell the house?

“There is progress,” Swift said. “But the (crime) numbers are still too high.”

First impressions also matter, Swift said. Drive through the streets of Bartlett Park on a Friday afternoon, and you’ll see lots of neat homes with people gathering on front porches. But you’ll also see groups of young men loitering at street corners, as well as beer bottles, beer cans and candy wrappers strewn on sidewalks and front lawns.

“There’s a standard of littering here that isn’t acceptable in most communities,” Swift said. “You come from outside, and your mouth drops.”

Habitat officials began building houses in Bartlett Park and the surrounding Midtown area because they wanted to be part of a community resurgence. Of the more than 100 homes Habitat has built in the city, more than half are in Midtown.

But because the Bartlett Park house and another house at 1818 20th Street S have been on the market so long, Inman said Habitat for Humanity is holding off on other new houses in the neighborhood.

“We’re not going to be building there until we have some idea people are willing to live there again,” Inman said.

“I can’t have houses sitting there that nobody’s willing to live in.”

 Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified February 9, 2007, 20:07:47]


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