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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: HUD boss touts Pasco’s stewardship, “model for the entire country”

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Published:   |   Updated: February 5, 2014 at 07:41 AM

Much of Pasco’s recent notoriety has been linked, correctly so, to the high profiles of its top politicians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially when it comes to the building of roads and community-turned-state colleges.

Then there’s the praise that comes from making government’s grand ambitions work as intended, which tends to be as gratifying as it is astonishing. Properly appreciating such executive expertise and stewardship requires wading into deep grass, but, luckily, Ed Jennings Jr. is a tall fellow.

As southeast regional director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Jennings was around last week when the Lacoochee Community Center was dedicated, and as pleased as he was about the HUD block grant that passed through Tallahassee and the West Pasco Government Center en route to Stanley Park, what really made his pulse quicken was what the county is doing with its community development program under George Romagnoli.

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Jennings, from Hawthorne by way of the University of Florida and, lately, Atlanta, was close to bursting over Romagnoli’s management of Pasco’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which is sort of a supersize flip-this-house operation. Using government stimulus funding — I know, I know — the ongoing intent of NSP is to acquire houses snared in crisis financial conditions, then get them back into capable private hands. In Pasco, this means rehabilitating and selling.

That’s right. Just like on A&E’s “Flip This House,” with the major difference being that private-sector flipper-investors are motivated by profit, and, from its earliest origins in 2008, NSP was designed to prevent the spread of tumbledown ghost-subdivisions that attract crime and blight, putting more pressure on depressed property values.

“Thus the name,” Romagnoli says. “It’s the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.” For the record, profit was not an option.

If you’re thinking this creates tension between the county and the private sector, think again. Early on, the scale of foreclosures and abandoned houses was so enormous, an army of brand new Ron LeGrand seminar graduates couldn’t have mopped up the mess. More recently, most of what Pasco has tackled is stuff investors want no part of: They’re in poorer neighborhoods, or they’ve lingered past the point opportunists would normally jump in.

Says Romagnoli, “Flippers screamed to high heaven at first, but I haven’t heard a peep since 2009.”

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Back to the ebullient Jennings.

“What George is doing here,” he says, “is the model for how to make it work. And I’m not just talking about being the model for Florida, but the model for the entire country.”

In short, Jennings says, Romagnoli is managing simultaneously to stabilize neighborhoods, navigating the evolving HUD rule book and maximizing NSP treasury. “The money goes out, they fix the house, they sell the house,” Jennings says, “and the money comes back in. Then they start all over again.”

Well, to be entirely accurate, the money sort of comes back in. After buying the house from the lender, bringing it up to code and helping a buyer with the down payment, the county typically recoups about 60 percent of its outlays. This compares prudently with some local governments that, Romagnoli says, simply gave money away. Because, stimulus, OK?

As a national leader in distressed real estate during the worst of the Great Recession, Pasco sucked up a substantial portion of NSP grants, $53.5 million, the most in the Tampa area. Working with assorted charity groups, Pasco got going quickly — also a point in its favor, Jennings says — and has since rehabilitated and sold 632 single-family houses and about 200 rental properties (mostly apartment complexes). Despite closing each project at a government-mandated loss, the county still has about $8 million in its NSP fund and is looking for further stabilization opportunities.

After all, the machine is rolling.

Romagnoli explains this eye-popping pace with a phrase you never have read before, and may never again: “Pasco is pretty nimble compared to other governments.” I don’t care if it did come with a qualifier — “other governments” — using “Pasco” and “nimble” in the same breath is the sort of thing that grabs your attention.

It certainly grabbed the attention of Ed Jennings Jr., which helps explain why HUD and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture have short-listed a community rehabilitation project in Lacoochee.

Good stewardship is, above all, a quiet thing. But, praise be, sometimes its rewards shout right out loud.

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