Housing initiative to build new homes in Sulphur Springs
One of Bob Buckhorn's boldest promises as a candidate for mayor was to create an affordable housing program modeled on the Mayor's Challenge Fund, the nationally acclaimed initiative that Buckhorn saw up-close in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a special assistant to Mayor Sandy Freedman.
Buckhorn's promise was, as usual, detailed and specific: Helping first-time home buyers find affordable housing and rehabilitating existing homes would be a "priority" for his administration. He would team up with lenders to help those buyers with "down payment assistance, reduction in origination fees, reduced interest rates, streamlined loan applications and assistance in preparing and packaging the loans." And he would get to work on the promise during his first year in office.
But by early 2013, the midpoint of his four-year term, even Buckhorn acknowledged that the city's housing efforts had not gotten his undivided attention and were not comprehensive, not organized and fractured.
Fast-forward one year: On Jan. 21 and 22, 2014, Buckhorn rolled out the second phase of an initiative designed to build new, affordable homes — though not for the reasons or in the ways he described as he campaigned for mayor.
The city will spend $1.4 million to build 12 new single-family houses in Sulphur Springs over a 120-day period, with more to follow if all goes as planned. The money for the project comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has pre-qualified nine building contractors who will get the opportunity to bid on building about four houses at a time. As those houses are built and sold, the city will plow the proceeds back into building more houses.
City Hall was in a position to do this because it spent 2013 targeting 51 vacant. abandoned houses in or near Sulphur Springs. It paid two contractors up to $7,000 per house to tear down the buildings and clear the lots. It also beefed up police patrols, assigned three code enforcement officers full-time to the neighborhood, hauled away 150 tons of trash and debris, worked with Tampa Electric to install 408 new street lights and had work crews trim trees that blocked light from those lights.
Now comes the second phase of the effort, which the city calls the "Nehemiah Project," a reference to an biblical figure who rebuilt the walls of a destroyed Jerusalem.
"Neighborhoods need neighbors, and that's what this is all about," Tampa economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh said at a groundbreaking on N 13th Street on Jan. 22, 2014. "We've been in cleaning trash, trimming trees, adding street lights, and now we're going to add some houses."
So is this Buckhorn's version of the Challenge Fund?
"I think this is the beginning of it," Buckhorn told PolitiFact Florida on Jan. 22, 2014. "The Challenge Fund, as successful as it was — it was a different time, a different time in our economy, a different time in terms of the number of foreclosures and delinquent mortgages that we have. For today's time, this is the beginning of what I think the next iteration of the Challenge Fund will look like."
Buckhorn acknowledged it's too soon to know whether the city will be able to create the kinds of assistance — help with down payments, low interest rates and reduced-cost loans — that he promised.
"We're not there yet," he said. "As this process matures and this program matures, hopefully we'll be able to incorporate all that stuff. … We may find as we go through this economy that this may not be doable."
There are other differences, too. Under Freedman, the Challenge Fund had extensive relationships with non-profit organizations that often oversaw the construction and renovation work.
For now, the city is assuming that role.
"The recession took its toll on our non-profit providers," Buckhorn said, especially those that built houses. "If this program is successful, there will be opportunities for nonprofits to participate," but in the meantime, he said, "I want to get this started. I don't want this to languish."
The Challenge Fund also often helped buyers by providing them with a deferred second mortgage that became due once they sold the house.
It's too soon to say whether the city could offer those second mortgages again, Buckhorn said.
"We would be willing to look at numerous options," he said, noting that federal community development money has been cut back since the days of the original Challenge Fund.
Finally, there is a difference in the larger goals of the effort. Buckhorn the candidate talked about the importance of helping first-time homebuyers and rehabilitating houses. Buckhorn the mayor is more focused on stabilizing one particularly troubled neighborhood.
"The situation out here in Sulphur Springs was different than what we had in the '80s and '90s because of the number of foreclosed houses, the number of abandoned houses," he said. "I think we're doing the best we can to stop the bleeding in a neighborhood that desperately needs it. This is our toughest neighborhood. This is where we have our most challenges. Those abandoned houses were exacerbating the law enforcement side of things and the need for social services, so we had to come in."
So to turn Sulphur Springs around, Buckhorn wants to bring in new homeowners.
"When people put roots in a neighborhood," he said, "they're invested in the success of the neighborhood. They're not just a tenant in a duplex."
Buckhorn's campaign promise was about first-time home buyers, affordable housing and rehabilitating existing houses. Through the Nehemiah Project, he has launched an ambitious housing program, though one with a different goal and a different approach from the original Challenge Fund.
Still, this is more than what Buckhorn accomplished during the first two years in office, when even he conceded that the city's housing efforts were "scattershot." Buckhorn may or may not end up with something more recognizably modeled on the Challenge Fund. In the meantime, this is progress. It is time to change the rating on this promise from Stalled to In the Works.
Interviews with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh and Tampa public affairs director Ali Glisson, Jan. 21 and 22, 2014
City of Tampa news release, "Mayor Buckhorn Announces Start of Rebuilding Sulphur Springs — Investing $1.4 million in new single-family housing," Jan. 21, 2014, accessed Jan. 22, 2014
Tampa Bay Times, "Tampa to launch $1.4 million program to build new houses in Sulphur Springs," Jan. 21, 2014, accessed Jan. 22, 2014
A ‘scattershot’ approach to housing programs
To voters who lived in Tampa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bob Buckhorn's campaign promise to create a program modeled on the Challenge Fund harkened back to a time when Tampa was a nationally recognized leader in creating affordable housing.
During then-Mayor Sandy Freedman's administration, in which Buckhorn served as Freedman's special assistant, the Mayor's Challenge Fund program helped thousands of Tampa residents buy and improve homes by using public money to guarantee private bank loans for people who otherwise could not have afforded conventional loans.
Buckhorn said his program would include down payment assistance, reduction in loan origination fees, reduced interest rates, streamlined loan applications and assistance in preparing and packaging the loans.
This was an ambitious — maybe even audacious — pledge for two reasons. First, the Challenge Fund had a lot of moving parts and required high levels of coordination and cooperation between City Hall, banks and nonprofit organizations. Also, the problems in the housing market today are much bigger, more widespread and more complex than they were 25 years ago.
To get an idea of how the Challenge Fund worked, consider one of its projects from the early 1990s. Back then, the city teamed up with First Union National Bank of Florida, the Tampa United Methodist Centers and the nonprofit Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan to move, renovate and sell 70 houses from the path of the Veterans Expressway in northwestern Hillsborough County.
The buyers were all first-time homeowners and included at least 26 families who had lived in public housing.
Key to this, city officials said at the time, was a commitment to help with "very unusual financing” from First Union, a bank that no longer exists. (It merged with Wachovia in 2001, which itself was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008.) First Union provided interim financing for the relocation and renovation of the houses, plus more than $2.1 million in mortgages.
The three-bedroom houses were moved to vacant lots the city had had acquired through condemnation, code enforcement proceedings or other methods. The Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan handled renovations for 10 of the homes and concrete work for all 70.
The Challenge Fund provided the buyers with, on average, a $15,000 deferred second mortgage that became due when the homeowner sold the house. With that assistance, the new homeowners took out bank mortgages of $35,000, with principal, interest, tax and insurance payments of $347 per month.
To recreate something like the Challenge Fund, Buckhorn would need the right leadership at City Hall, money to help provide the financing and an organized network of private-sector and nonprofit partners.
At the mid-point of his four-year term, he had none of these in place.
First, personnel: City Hall hasn't had a housing director since Sharon West, then the manager of housing and community development, retired on Jan. 4, 2012. Buckhorn said he wasn't satisfied with the first round of applicants.
"I told them to start re-advertising nationwide about two weeks ago,” Buckhorn told PolitiFact Florida on Feb. 26, 2013.
Second, money: Buckhorn said one possible source of funds could be a national settlement between states and banks over mortgage foreclosure practices.
"It ought to come back here on the streets,” he said of the money. But a plan tentatively approved on March 20, 2013, by the Florida House Appropriations Committee earmarks none of the money for cities.
Of $200 million to be appropriated statewide, $45 million would provide down payment assistance to teachers who work in "D” and "F” schools, prosecutors and public defenders, veterans, active-duty military personnel and health care professionals who work in rural areas. Another $35 million would go to the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity to acquire and rehabilitate existing homes. The rest would go to rental assistance, clearing a statewide backlog of foreclosure cases, domestic violence shelters, college dormitories and legal aid for homeowners facing foreclosure.
Third: partnerships with private bankers, nonprofit organizations and other government agencies. Currently Buckhorn said the city tends to work with housing partners "in sporadic and scattershot ways,” but what made the Challenge Fund successful was its comprehensive approach, especially when it came to getting private lenders to sign on.
Finally, there's a fourth factor: Unlike the late 1980s or early 1990s, any housing program created now would not only be trying to rehabilitate existing houses or building new ones. It also would have to reckon, one way or another, with a huge glut of homes that either are in foreclosure or some form of mortgage distress, Buckhorn said.
"It's a much more complicated and difficult process than it was in ‘88 ‘89, ‘90,” he said.
All this notwithstanding, Buckhorn does point to a couple of positive developments in the city's approach to housing.
First, there's the Nehemiah Project, in which the city plans to demolish 51 abandoned homes in or near Sulphur Springs.
Also, the city helped identify six local nonprofit organizations that in February 2013 were awarded $800,000 in Wells Fargo grants to help Tampa neighborhoods recover from the housing crash and foreclosure crisis.
The work in Sulphur Springs and with Wells Fargo is part of what Buckhorn said he envisioned the city doing, but "it's frustrating” not to do more. The foreclosure crisis complicates things, but Buckhorn acknowledges that's no excuse.
"Candidly, part of it's been that I've had so much else on my agenda that I just haven't been able to get to it,” Buckhorn said. "It hasn't gotten my undivided attention. We're doing good stuff out there, but it's not comprehensive, it's not organized, it's fractured. It's just not up to what I expect.”
Buckhorn promised during his campaign that during his first year in office he would create a housing program modeled on the Challenge Fund. He missed that self-imposed deadline, but says he still wants to put together a more comprehensive effort. Considering the history of the Challenge Fund and the scope of the housing foreclosure crisis, he's got his work cut out for him. So for now, his progress on this campaign pledge remains Stalled.
Interviews with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Feb. 26, 2013 and March 20, 2013
City of Tampa news release, "Wells Fargo grants $800,000 to six Tampa nonprofits to help stabilize local neighborhoods,” Feb. 11, 2013
Tampa Bay Times, "Tampa to demolish 51 vacant homes in Sulphur Springs," Jan. 29, 2013, accessed March 25, 2013
Florida House of Representatives, PCB APC 13-01 Redraft-B, "An act relating to funding from the national mortgage settlement,” accessed March 25, 2013
St. Petersburg Times, "Tampa mayor urges lawmakers to pass affordable housing bill ,” March 20, 1992, accessed March 24, 2013
St. Petersburg Times, "Family moves to preserved "dream house' ,” Sept. 22, 1993, accessed March 24, 2013
Web site, "First Union is now Wells Fargo,” accessed March 25, 2013
Challenge Fund still on the drawing board
Back when he was a candidate, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said creating a Challenge Fund housing program was on his list of priorities for the first year.
It's a program with which Buckhorn has experience. Under former mayor Sandy Freedman, for whom Buckhorn worked as a special assistant, the Challenge Fund helped poor and middle-class residents buy homes by combining federal grants and conventional bank loans to provide low-cost financing.
But the program hasn't exactly come back to life during in the Buckhorn administration. The city has been without a housing director since the beginning of 2012. The city's manager of housing and community development, Sharon West, retired on Jan. 4, 2012, according to city officials. A search is underway to fill the job.
That critical post needs to be filled before a Challenge Fund can get off the ground, Buckhorn said in an interview with PolitiFact Florida.
"Until we get new leadership, we would be hard-pressed to initiate any new programs, although I am committed to doing that, because I think it's important,” Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn's campaign promise was to start the program in his first year, and he hasn't done that. Still, if a successful program eventually starts later, this promise could merit a more positive rating. Buckhorn said he intends to do that.
But with no housing director yet in place, the promise doesn't seem to have gone very far. For now, we rate it Stalled.
Interview with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Feb. 28, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, Bob Buckhorn unveils platform focused on business and neighborhoods, Jan. 24, 2011
Tampa Bay Times, The next level — Bob Buckhorn's goal for Tampa, and himself, Feb. 11, 2011