A city of St. Pete initiative to rehab abandoned homes is under extra scrutiny after two teens were assaulted by an armed man inside an abandoned St. Pete home this week.
St. Pete Police say a St. Pete man, D'Andre Banks, 25, used a vacant St. Pete home near MLK Street South and Paris Avenue South, to sexually assault boys on two separate occasions.
Vacant urban homes are also known to house vagrants, and sometimes illegal activity such as drug use.
Neighbors tell ABC Action News they have complained to the city about how the vacant house has attracted crime.
"Secure the whole property, so that way you make it safe," said Pete Phillips, a concerned neighbor who lives across the street.
St. Pete leaders say rooting out crime is part of the reason the city launched a program called "Rebate for Residential Rehabs" (RRR) in 2013 aimed to find incentives for property owners to either rehab abandoned homes, or sell the property to a developer.
Since the program was launched, the number of vacant homes has dropped dramatically, according to city statistics.
The number of vacant or boarded up properties in St. Pete went from 830 citywide to just 275. In one especially hard-hit community, the Palmetto Park neighborhood, the number of vacant homes went from 41 to 8.
RRR was conceived by St. Pete Councilman Karl Nurse and offers a 20% rebate on the cost of specific building improvements, such as HVAC replacement, window replacement, insulation replacement, electrical and plumbing upgrades, and other "real" renovations, as the city calls them, that add significant value to a home. The city put $400,000 into a fund for this purpose.
Since the end of the recent Recession, several new residential homes have been built in Palmetto Park. One recent example is the active rehab of the vacant home at 2500 2nd Ave S., which the city foreclosed on, and auctioned off, and through the RRR program, is being rebuilt, says Rob Gerdes, St. Pete's Director of Codes Compliance.
The end of the Recession has also helped reduce the number of abandoned homes.
Residents tell ABC Action News they've noticed a boom in home rehabs recently, and the data backs this up: the housing market in Pinellas County took a big hit during the recession, but now has a much lower foreclosure rate, just 1 in 276 homes, according to a new RealtyTrac report. That's good for the lowest rate in the Tampa Bay Area, and helped drop the Tampa Bay Area to just 28th among major metro areas in the country; the Bay Area used to have one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the country.
"It's unbelievable what's going on in this neighborhood," Mike Scranton tells ABC Action News. Scranton lives in that once-blighted Palmetto Park community, and owns his own business in St. Pete. "The amount of homes that have been rehabbed and remodeled and all the new homes rebuilt, it's just been amazing to watch the growth over here," he adds.
Scranton credits the end of the Recession, but also the RRR program, for the turnaround.
"I think it has helped a lot. It can be a really undertaking to do a complete remodel of a home, so any incentive they can give people to come in and to buy and clean up this neighborhood and fix up these rundown vacant homes is just great," says Scranton.
Still, the problem isn't totally rooted out.
Last year, a RealtyTrac report listed St. Pete as having the 9th highest percentage of abandoned homes in the country, at 5.4% and over 7,000 homes total.
And despite the progress in eliminating vacant homes, residents who live near them say the city, and property owners, should do a better job of securing them, to prevent criminals from using them.
"My message be to the city make sure you protect this place, secure it better than it is now," says Phillips. "You can put alarm system in there, you can put people got those burglar bars or something. Keep people from getting in there. Secure the whole property so you can make it safe," he adds.
You can learn more about St. Pete's RRR program by clicking HERE.