TAMPA - The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development still plans to close its Tampa office in the fall, but some residents who rely on HUD services are signing a petition to stop the agency from shuttering its doors.
As of Friday, 309 people had signed an online petition posted on the website MoveOn.org. Sylvia Alvarez, the petition's creator, said she doesn't understand why HUD would close an office that's at the "epicenter of the state's foreclosure crisis."
"That office is crucial to our area," said Alvarez, founder of the Housing & Education Alliance, a HUD-certified agency that offers counseling services to Tampa's Hispanic community. "To have them pull out makes no sense."
The HUD field office in Tampa has helped people who were in danger of losing their homes, Alvarez said, and local HUD officials have attended or sponsored workshops to educate first-time home buyers.
When the office closes, residents can go online for information or contact regional offices in Jacksonville or Miami for assistance, HUD officials said.
Alvarez said Hispanics are the Tampa office's primary clients and prefer getting help in person instead of using a telephone or going on the Internet.
"Our community likes to talk to somebody face to face," she said. "Where will they go now? I have no idea."
The main HUD office in Washington, D.C., announced plans in April to close 16 of its 80 field offices and consolidate the services they provided into regional hubs. The field office in Orlando also will close.
About 120 employees will be affected, but no one is losing their jobs, HUD spokesman Jerry Brown said.
"They're being transferred, offered buyouts or offered early retirement," Brown said.
Tampa's office has 15 employees, he said. The office provided limited walk-in services and assisted in writing grants.
The cost of the annual lease at the Timberlake Federal Building, 500 E. Zack St., is $193,000 and yearly administrative costs are $56,000, Brown said. He said closing the Tampa office will save HUD about $2 million.
"All of the offices being closed are small offices," he said. "This was brought on by our economic times. We're trying to do business smarter."
HUD is also restructuring its Multifamily Housing Programs, which provides mortgage insurance to agency-approved lenders. The move will save $40 to $45 million and the cuts to the housing program affect about 900 of HUD's 9,000 employees.
The downsizing is the first major change in the agency since the late 1980s, when it had 16,000 employees, Brown said.
But times, and technology, have changed, he said. People are now using smartphones and laptops to access HUD services.
"The current organizational model for HUD is not sustainable from a financial and a service delivery point of view," HUD Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones said in a statement. "We're in a different budget environment and we're at a point where we must make some extremely tough choices."
Alvarez said if the employees in the Tampa office choose to relocate, it will put a strain on their families.
Alvarez said she hopes her petition gets the attention of HUD officials in Washington and gives her an opportunity to meet with them.
"Let them tell us why they think it's a good idea to close our office," she said, "and we'll tell them why, for the people like us who work in the trenches, we think it's not."