TAMPA — Symone Griffin grew up on Bird Street in Tampa’s Sulphur Springs neighborhood. In two weeks, she’ll return with her husband and two small children as one of the neighborhood’s newest homeowners.
“I feel like I’m a part of the change that’s going to come there,” Griffin said Friday. She and her family expect to close on their new home Aug. 29.
They’ll be buying one of nearly a dozen new houses built in Sulphur Springs this year with financial support from the city. The houses are being sold at market rates to people who agree to live in them. They’re not for renters.
The houses — and the dozens of demolitions still happening in Sulphur Springs and North Tampa — are two parts of Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s Nehemiah Project, the latest effort by a Tampa mayor to breathe new life into Sulphur Springs, one of the city’s poorest and most troubled neighborhoods.
So far, the city has demolished 47 abandoned houses in the area and has 32 left to go.
Buckhorn climbed aboard an excavator early last year and took a ceremonial first swipe at an abandoned house to kick off the Nehemiah project. Earlier this year, he returned to the neighborhood to hang a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of the first house completed with city help.
Along with underwriting new houses, the city also spent much of the last year clearing illegal dump sites and working with Tampa Electric Co. to install 400 streetlights in the neighborhood.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” Buckhorn said this week. “We are undoing 40 years of social and economic tsunamis.”
City records show that Sulphur Springs’ new houses started going under contract in late June. Between then and Aug. 13, eight of the 11 houses found potential buyers. Sale prices are running around $85,000.
The city underwrote the first phase of construction with $1.4 million in unspent funds from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created under President George W. Bush to offset damage from the wave of foreclosures that followed the mid-2000s housing market crash.
From here on, profits from home sales will be plowed back into new construction, said Tom Snelling, the city’s growth management director.
“Our original goal was to get upwards of 20 homes built, and we’re on track for that,” Snelling said.
Jason Stevens, 43, plans to close on his new house on North 10th Street next month.
Given its reputation, Stevens said he spent several days visiting Sulphur Springs at night to get a full picture of the neighborhood.
“I’ve never run into a situation that was all that bad,” he said.
Stevens lost his last home to foreclosure in 2006.
Real estate agent Ashley Christie, listing agent for the new homes, said poor credit scores have made it hard for some people to qualify for market-rate mortgages.
“I have had a lot of calls from people that haven’t been able to get pre-approved yet,” Christie said. “Credit score is one of the main issues. People don’t know how much it affects them.”
The hope is that new homes and homeowners will make Sulphur Springs more attractive to real estate investors and full-time residents, reviving the community that was annexed into Tampa in the 1950s.
“That’s just one of those things you have to gamble on,” Stevens said.
Much of Sulphur Springs’ housing stock dates to the 1950s or earlier. Tampa City Council approved the construction of rental duplexes in the neighborhood in the 1970s. Buckhorn said that change set off the community’s slide toward poverty and crime.
“It was rough,” said Griffin, 24, who grew up in Sulphur Springs a decade ago. “It had a lot of drug activity and fighting.”
Griffin said she learned about the new homes in her old neighborhood when she went to the city looking for help buying her family’s first home.
Griffin said her parents moved the family out of the neighborhood to escape its problems, so they were surprised to hear she planned to return.
“It was a real shocker for my family,” she said.