Fewer “Zombie” eyesores and more affordable housing units made available during a major transformation of St. Petersburg’s codes process

Fewer “Zombie” eyesores and more affordable housing units made available during a major transformation of St. Petersburg’s codes process

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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Scenic St. Petersburg works with the city codes department to make a better city – Visit their site here

Jacksonville: “Long awaited regulations arrive for waterways”

Jacksonville: “Long awaited regulations arrive for waterways”

Photo: FWC in Resident News

” …The City of Jacksonville is on the cusp of limiting long-term anchoring in the city’s waterways, and the highly-trafficked Ortega River in particular, to 45 days.

It didn’t take an act of Congress, just the Florida Legislature, and cooperation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that controls the state’s waterways, plus a local push from Jacksonville City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor and the city’s Waterways Commission.

Derelict vessels and the troubles they bring to the Ortega River and the larger St. Johns River are not new but they’ve become more common in recent years, residents say.

They damage other boats and docks in storms, serve as low rent housing and appear as eyesores against otherwise scenic vistas. But the river blight has united the many parties in cooperation of a common goal: improving traffic conditions for boaters, many of whom live and/or play on the river.

Councilwoman DeFoor put it like this for landlubbers; imagine an old car in disrepair. It may still run but it’s not your weekend piddle project. It’s just parked in front of your house. For months on end. And you can’t do anything to move it.

That will soon change for derelict boats, however.

Two new city ordinances moving toward approval should improve traffic on the river. One measure will remove a nuisance vessel from the Ortega River via a state grant program funded from a portion of boater registration fees. The cost is $30,000.

Another ordinance crafted by Councilwoman DeFoor will prohibit vessels from serving as long-term housing by capping anchoring periods in the high traffic parts of the St. Johns River, like the Ortega River, to 45 days.

‘Neighbors who live along the Ortega River brought this issue to my attention when I was running for office,’ explained Councilwoman DeFoor by email. ‘I’ve been a boater my whole life and I understand the joy and responsibilities of owning a boat. Lisa Grubba, Mike Barker, and other neighbors shared their concerns with me and because the waterways are controlled by the state we brought Representative Wyman Duggan in on the conversations…

‘We can’t let the Ortega River fill up like a junkyard,’ added Mr. Barker.”

— Joel Addington, Resident Community News

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Legal: “Palm Beach County moves to expand ban on floating structures anchoring in county waters”

Legal: “Palm Beach County moves to expand ban on floating structures anchoring in county waters”

Photo: Allen Eyestone, Palm Beach Post

“…Palm Beach County is one step closer to expanding a local law that bans floating structures from anchoring in county waters, with some exceptions.

If passed, an update to the Cindy DeFilippo Floating Structure Ordinance will apply to floating structures anchoring or mooring in all waters within the county, including those under the jurisdiction of a city or town.

County commissioners will take a final vote on June 15.

A floating structure isn’t a boat or other watercraft, which the state defines as a ‘vessel’ and requires registration.

Rather, it is a ‘floating entity … not primarily used as a means of transportation on water but which serves purposes typically associated with a structure or other improvement to real property,’ according to the state. These can include functions such as a residence, restaurant or clubhouse. ”

— Hannah Morse, Palm Beach Post

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Leesburg Historic Preservation: “Lee School plan gets planning and zoning blessing for multi-family housing”

Leesburg Historic Preservation: “Lee School plan gets planning and zoning blessing for multi-family housing”

Photo: Cindy Peterson
“…While the main building will stand, other buildings will be razed on the five-acre site, including a large brick building just north of the main building…

Plans meet four city goals and requirements…remove blight, fit in with the city’s Historic District, and be compatible with the Downtown Master Plan and surrounding zoning.

Currently, the rundown buildings are an eyesore and a sometime home for vagrants and homeless people.

The back-and-forth sales and proposals for the old school site are almost as historic as the building, which was erected in 1915.

Former mayor and president of the Leesburg Heritage Society, Sanna Henderson, is onboard with the plan.”

— Frank Stanfield, Daily Commercial
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Confusing Road Sign

Confusing Road Sign

Photo: CBC News Nova Scotia
“People driving on the south shore of Nova Scotia might feel a little lost after seeing a bewildering road sign near Port Mouton…

The sign — on Highway 103 a few kilometres before exit 21 — appeared in late August when, according to the Department of Transportation, a local Best Western took down its billboard, revealing the patchwork underneath…”

— CBC News, Nova Scotia
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“Three months after Hurricane Irma, canals in the Florida Keys are still full of debris”

“Three months after Hurricane Irma, canals in the Florida Keys are still full of debris”

Photo: Katie Atkins, Miami Herald

“A photo of manatees in a Florida Keys canal surrounded by Hurricane Irma debris posted to Facebook has sparked outrage online.

The photo was posted Dec. 7 in the Facebook group ‘Irma Big Pine Key’ and it was later clarified the canal is in Marathon’s Key by the Sea condo complex, mile marker 50.5 oceanside. As of this week, the canal is still full of debris.

‘The manatees come up through windows of the RVs in the canal. It’s just sickening,’ said office manager Angela Sanders.

She lives in the park and ‘knows it by heart,’ she said, adding she believes there are 16 trailers in the canal.

‘There are sheds in there, trailers and everything that was in these homes,’ Sanders said. ‘Their furniture, their silverware, their dishes, their shampoo, bleach, oil, propane tanks — anything you’ve got in your house right now, 16 of that is in the canal…’

‘Last weekend, we went in and started clearing the canal ourselves but there was only so much we could do,’ Sanders said.

As for the manatees, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation representative could not say how many have been affected by the debris or whether there have been any deaths directly caused by it…

It could be January, four months post hurricane, before cleanup of canals begins. Each municipality has to work out a memorandum of understanding with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the FWC, said county public information officer Cammy Clark.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, City Planner George Garrett said canal cleanup in Marathon will probably start Jan. 1… ”

— Katie Atkins, Miami Herald

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