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Renovator skirmishes with city over work

He says he's bringing the Crescent Lake neighborhood up in value. Critics say he's doing work outside the rules.

By SHARON L. BOND

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Michael S. Novilla owns a long stretch of Fifth Street N on Crescent Lake.

He lives in a single-family home on the east side of the street. He also owns 13 other dwellings on Fifth facing the lake or just off the street on intersecting avenues from 14th to 19th. They make up Crescent Lake Apartments.

Most of Novilla's purchases are older, small apartment buildings. At least one is a larger house that has been converted to two apartments with two more on the property, one built from a garage. In all he has 51 apartments, most of them on Fifth Street.

"These are long-term investments. I'm not looking to buy, put on a coat of paint and sell," said the 33-year-old Novilla, who is a real estate broker.

Novilla believes he has improved the neighborhood by cleaning up neglected buildings and increasing property values. Thus, he estimates his holdings are worth between $1-million and $2-million.

A few property owners in Crescent Lake don't see it that way, though none would speak for the record. They lodge their complaints anonymously with the city.

Novilla has been cited for various code violations, including parking in his yard and not having sod completely covering his lawn. He has since built a brick driveway for parking. With the water shortage, the requirement for sod has not been enforced strictly, according to David Oliver in the codes compliance department. Novilla's yard is not bare.

Citations on Novilla's rental property include rotted fascia boards, holes in soffit screens, units not properly designated with numbers, peeling paint and the like. Oliver said that a change in ownership will trigger citations and that the city tries to help new owners by allowing time to fix problems inherited with purchases. Usually no legal action is taken unless nothing is being done to bring the property up to code.

"Compliance is the ultimate goal," Oliver said.

Novilla also has failed to get permits for some of his renovations, according to citations by the city code enforcement department. He does not always get required inspections as the work progresses, according to Milton Massanet, St. Petersburg's building official.

In September, city inspectors noticed work in progress at 1525 Fifth St. N without permits. They ordered it to stop. Vinyl siding and drywall were being installed in the two-story, two-unit building. An opening for a window and door were widened to accommodate French doors. Electrical wiring and duct work were being done. On Monday, Novilla had a contractor get the required building and electrical permits.

"He is a chronic violator," Massanet said. Novilla denies this.

Any transgressions are cast in sharp relief because Crescent Lake, already a lovely old neighborhood, is becoming a more desirable place to live with one set of new townhouses nearly complete and a set of high-end ones planned behind the old Bradford Coach House where Outback Steakhouse plans to open next year.

Also, Novilla serves on the board of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association. All the more reason for him to be doing work to code or better, according to Clifford Holensworth, association president.

Board members "should be above minimum standards. They should set the example. That is not to say that he is not," Holensworth said.

"I hope Mike intends to stay here a long time," Holensworth said. "I see property value going up with what he is doing."

Novilla denies he routinely fails to get permits. He says that for all major work in renovation projects, he has permits. He defines major work as anything other than a handyman's chore. And, he said, he does call for inspections.

"I don't have any problem with people coming in and doing inspections," Novilla said.

For some of the work, such as installing vinyl siding on fascia and soffits, Novilla said he didn't realize he had to have a permit.

"I had a disagreement with one of the building inspectors," he said.

"There are a lot of gray lines. The city wants to collect a tax (permit fees) like the Sheriff of Nottingham," Novilla said.

Massanet said his department might accept ignorance as a defense the first time a person is cited, especially if the person does not own a lot of property.

But in the case of someone who owns as much as Novilla does, he should know what the city requires of him.

"You are providing housing for the public and the public can be put in a dire situation if your improvements aren't up to requirements," Massanet said of multiple property owners such as Novilla.

"It's not about protection," Novilla said. "It's about tax."

Novilla said it aggravates him that he must hire a contractor to get a permit for his renovation projects, a requirement of the Pinellas County Contractors and Licensing Board. Even though Novilla owns the properties he renovates, he cannot himself get the permits unless he lives in the structures or gets a contractor's license.

He said that hiring a contractor can turn a $500 handyman job into an expensive one.

"The United States is a country based on free trade. But I realized that is not true," Novilla said. "You own a piece of property but can't work on it yourself. You have to call somebody who has a license. What is that? You have to pay somebody else to do your work."

Last week Novilla described himself this way: "I work hard and smart to create a better place to live. Productive work that creates value, based upon mutual respect, honesty and fairness (free trade). Not upon retarded laws and wasteful, nightmarish bureaucracy."

Massanet agrees that owners are at a disadvantage by the board requirement for a contractor even though its purpose is to ensure uniformity in regulations. He said someone who has a garage apartment behind the house they own and live in can't even get permits to work on such an apartment.

"Being a person who works within the regulations, I find some of them self-serving, such as having to hire a contractor," Massanet said. "Why not allow people to pull permits for their property? I wouldn't go so far as to allow the Novillas of the world who own 20 pieces to pull all 20."

Novilla was born and raised in St. Petersburg and said he came to the Crescent Lake neighborhood in 1995. He had little cash when he began buying real estate. He got help on his first buy with owner financing, and he also collected a stack of credit cards from which he got $70,000 to $80,000.

Some of his renovations are more extensive than others. After they are completed, Novilla raises the rents, which he says have been below current market rates. The increase in rent gives him cash to continue renovations or buy other buildings.

"I pass on most of the increase to the brand new tenants so they are paying market rates. They subsidize the existing tenants," Novilla said.

Novilla said his refurbished one-bedroom apartments rent from $600 to $700 per month and two-bedroom units for $800 to $1,100 per month.

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