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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014

Once-poor Hillsborough areas make gains

Published:   |   Updated: February 23, 2014 at 08:00 AM

TAMPA — When graduate student Justin Nussbaum went house hunting three years ago, he settled on a brand new townhouse in a recently built community off Orient Road.

The community, Wexford, has more than 200 townhouses and another 240 apartments, many of them built in the wake of the housing crash.

Nussbaum, 23, is getting a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida, so he plans on staying put for a while.

“I wanted a place near campus, and this seemed like one of the nicer areas,” Nussbaum said has he walked his dog, Obi, around the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is a hop and a skip north of the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, a fact that made it attractive to casino workers as well as people looking for quick commutes into downtown, said Scott Wilson, vice president of The Wilson Group, which built Wexford.

A combination of new market-rate construction and gentrifying city neighborhoods is helping to transform two areas — the 33610 and 33605 ZIP codes — once known for their poverty. The shifts turned up last week in newly released tax data from the Internal Revenue Service.

“The millennium generation isn’t interested in moving out to the FishHawks and Brandons,” said Stephen Griffin, a planner with the Hillsborough City County Planning Commission. “They want to be closer to work.”

The IRS numbers break down Tampa-area tax returns by ZIP code, looking at how many households filed taxes, how much income they reported and what kind of credits or deductions they benefited from. The numbers show big-picture results, not details of each return.

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More than 133,000 households in Hillsborough County had incomes low enough to qualify for the federal Earned-Income Tax Credit in 2011, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The tax credit targets the working poor and those with little income, providing them with hundreds or thousands of dollars above whatever tax refund they might be entitled to.

The number of Tampa-area households receiving the tax credit grew about 25 percent from 2006, the year the housing market peaked, according to IRS figures.

About a fifth of Hillsborough households received the tax credit in 2011. They are concentrated in ZIP codes that include neighborhoods in northwest Tampa between Waters and Hillsborough avenues, unincorporated Town ’N Country, North Tampa, the Clair Mel area southeast of Tampa and the Gibsonton area in southern Hillsborough County.

The highest concentration of tax-credit recipients was in the 33614 ZIP code, which includes Tampa’s Drew Park neighborhood and parts of Hillsborough County to the north. In that area, 34 percent of households got the tax credit in 2011, up from 30 percent five years before.

Even some of the county’s wealthiest areas weren’t immune to rising need. In New Tampa, for example, the ranks of people claiming the Earned-Income Tax Credit grew by 30 percent between 2006 and 2011, though it still amounted to just 12 percent of households in that well-off area.

The 33610 and 33605 ZIP codes are two parts of the county where poverty, as measured by the proportion of earned-income recipients, actually dropped — from 40 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2011 in 33601 and from nearly 50 percent by about 23 percent in 33605.

Other areas saw a drop in poverty, too. Postal codes covering Tampa Heights/Downtown as well as parts of West Tampa also saw drops in poverty as their populations and wealth increased.

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But the biggest changes were in areas containing neighborhoods — Old Seminole Heights in 33610 and V.M. Ybor and Palmetto Beach in 33605 — that went through gentrification between 2006 and 2011.

As middle-class families replaced poor ones, the income in those areas rose and the number of families needing financial help declined.

The sprawling 33610 ZIP code also saw a burst of multifamily and town house construction during that same period. East of the city limits, the Orient Road area sprouted the Wexford townhouses. To the north, along East Sligh Avenue, the Cross Creek apartment complex went up. It’s one of six apartment projects built in the area during the economic downturn and recovery, according to county property records.

IRS records show that the number of households filing tax returns in 33610 nearly doubled over five years to 28,429. The overall income grew by about the same amount.

Some of that new income can be found at Wexford, where Nussbaum paid more than $100,000 for his townhouse.

The same happened in 33605, where the number of households filing taxes jumped from 7,052 in 2006 to 12,826 five years later. At the same time, the number of households claiming earned-income credits dropped by about half.

Debi Johnson, president of the Old Seminole Heights neighborhood association, says changes like those reshaping her neighborhood may be helping to change the economics of eastern Tampa and adjacent areas of the county.

The eastern part of Old Seminole Heights — between I-275 and North 22nd Street — began to gentrify between 2006 and 2011 as new owners snapped up old homes for cheap prices.

“At the peak of the market, people couldn’t afford Hyde Park, but they could afford Seminole Heights,” Johnson said.

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