St. Petersburg improves its housing stock by transforming vacant lots into affordable housing.
Photo: Mark Wemple

“By dealing aggressively with the owners of dilapidated homes and vacant lots, St. Petersburg has improved its housing stock — and is transforming some vacant lots into affordable housing in the process.

James Corbett, St. Petersburg’s code enforcement director, grew up in the city, the son of a single mother. They lived in a couple of rental homes before his mother, a bookkeeper for Pinellas County Schools, was able to buy a house in south St. Petersburg. The purchase, he says, gave the family ‘a sense of place, a sense of stability.’

Today, St. Petersburg has about 110 vacant and boarded properties – roughly one-eighth the number it had in 2014, and well below pre-recession levels.
Photo: Mark Wemple

…The city’s incoming mayor at the time, Rick Kriseman, ordered employees to speed up demolitions and crack down on deadbeat property owners. During the next year, the city demolished more than 100 abandoned, privately owned structures and repaired another 62. Within four years, that list had shrunk to about 200 properties….

St. Petersburg initiated foreclosure proceedings against 635 properties. Only 70 remain in foreclosure today.
Photo: Mark Wemple

Many cities deal with the zombie-lot problem with an approach that some call ‘file and forget’ — they slap code-enforcement liens on neglected lots and hope that real estate values eventually rise enough to make the owners want to get out of arrears and either sell, develop or refinance the property.

Instead, Corbett went after the owners of the zombie lots more aggressively, using a tactic that cities typically shy away from — foreclosure. In 2016, he identified the owners of dozens of empty lots, mostly in historically black neighborhoods south of downtown. Often, the property owners owed more in taxes or fines than the properties were worth. ‘You might have $40,000 in liens on a lot that was worth $20,000,’ he says…

Today, St. Petersburg has about 110 vacant and boarded properties — roughly one-eighth the number it had in 2014, and well below pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, the city has begun turning some of the foreclosed properties into affordable housing…

The city responded by trying to turn some foreclosures into first homes for local residents instead of selling the lots to developers. Under the program, the city acquires an abandoned lot at auction, clears the title and gives it to a non-profit developer. The developer, in turn, builds a home and sells it to a lower-income family. So far, the city has acquired 50 lots this way, and nine houses have been built and sold to first time home buyers…

An Effective Tool

St. Petersburg is believed to be the first city in Florida to regularly use foreclosure to try to reduce blight, though others have since followed.

In 2019, Largo, just north of St. Petersburg, moved to foreclose on a handful of derelict properties with longstanding liens. ‘We never want to do that, but sometimes this is a tool that we have to use to get people’s property into compliance,’ the city’s community standards manager, Tracey Schofield, has said.

In 2020, Bradenton also implemented a lien foreclosure program, telling the local newspaper, ‘We hope we can take care of the worst of the worst and remove the people who own them now…’

Lien Forgiveness

Last year, Pinellas County adopted a plan to partially forgive liens on residential and commercial properties in unincorporated areas, saying code enforcement fines shouldn’t be so excessive that they hinder reinvestment and development.

At the time, the county had more than 500 properties with liens exceeding their market value — a total of about $300 million in liens. The county figured it could reduce that number to $30 million by capping liens at $20,000 per violation for a single-family home and $100,000 for another building type. Before then, the county had no limit on liens, which increase daily…

James Corbett, code enforcement director for St. Petersburg, says lien forgiveness is a good idea in many cases. He says the city often works with distressed homeowners to reduce their liens and settle their debt, but forgiveness is less effective in cases where the property has been abandoned and the owner wants nothing to do with it, he adds. In those cases, he says, the best thing for everyone — the city, the neighborhood and even the owner — could be to foreclose, clear the title, and sell the property to someone who wants it.”

— Amy Martinez, Florida Trends

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