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Vacancies cost county more than tax revenue

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By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — With record numbers of foreclosures, job losses and builders going bankrupt, many areas in south Hillsborough County are saturated with vacant houses that have become targets for various types of criminals.

From people who want to make money by ripping copper from walls and ceilings, to places to rob and rape, as the vacancies spread, so does crime.

 

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PENNY FLETCHER PHOTOS
Just a short time ago homes like these were in good shape, until the families had to move out due to foreclosure or job loss. Now they’ve been ransacked; appliances stolen and copper wiring pulled from walls and ceilings. Worse yet, they’re being used as a place to commit all kinds of crimes.
“We can’t afford to ignore it,” said county code enforcement supervisor Bill Langford. “The creative financing and variable rates people got in order to buy homes a few years ago fell through and they had no equity so they couldn’t refinance. Many people in areas saturated with new homes just walked away when they lost a job, or their rates went up, or they just couldn’t live there anymore because they saw no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Many of these areas now look like ghost towns.

Other homes are in the well-attended neighborhoods, but you can tell which ones are vacant because of run-down conditions and tall weeds in the yards.

No matter where they are, the vacancies are an open invitation to crime.

“It’s gotten crucial the past couple of years,” Langford said.

But Jan. 1, the county’s code enforcement division put Langford and five of his employees in a new role: working solely on the vacancy problem.

“Their new role is to go to banks and try and get them to work something out,” said Langford’s supervisor Andy Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer has put together several programs, one being SAFE (Safe Areas for Education) that targets all the vacancies in a mile radius of any school where children may be walking.

“We want to be sure the kids stay safe going to and from school,” Pfeiffer said.

Keeping track of vacant houses and other buildings within a mile radius of schools and child care centers is the same thing the sheriff's office does with sexual predators, Pfeiffer said.

He eventually wants to also do sweeps of bus stops as well.

Meanwhile, he is counting on Langford and his crew to root out hot spots and deal with them. “January 1 we had 949 vacancies (in the county) due to foreclosures and today we’re down to 866,” Langford told me. “Just this morning I had a conference with bankers from Bank of America about this up at USF and they’ve agreed to work with us.”

 

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Bill Langford oversees a task force of five code enforcers that concentrates on working with banks and the sheriff’s office to keep foreclosed and abandoned homes from becoming the site of crime scenes and other dangers.
Because Langford’s “task force” is taking care of the problems caused by the vacancies, other code officials can work on the department’s regular duties and complaints from citizens.

Each week, Langford gets together with officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and goes over crime reports, linking any to vacancies. There are many, from violence, gang activity and drugs, to people making money by stripping homes of appliances, air conditioning and heating units and tearing down walls to get copper piping to sell.

“It’s our department’s standard to respond to a citizen complaint within five days,” Langford said. “Now the other enforcement people can concentrate on doing that, while we deal with this problem.”

Langford’s main focus is to get the banks to spend their money fixing the problems rather than asking for taxpayer money to do it. And they try and do it before the property is too far gone to fix.

“Once the property is condemned, the county loses its tax base,” Langford said. “Isn’t it better to get money from the banks than from you, the taxpayer? They’re the ones that made these creative financing deals.”

The code enforcers want to get banks to bulldoze down bushy areas so houses are more visible from the street, cut power lines in nearby areas so they cannot be jumped from poles to vacant houses, and do repairs if possible to get people into the houses; without creative financing.

 

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All it took was this one broken window and this house became a crime scene. To the left of the window, you can see that the electrical lines have been removed by county workers so that criminals can no longer jump lines off nearby electrical poles to gain power.
The sheriff’s office is to be credited with the idea of enlisting help from code enforcement, Langford said.

Educating residents is very important. When someone sees a vacant house, they need to alert the county to keep an eye on it and then Langford’s men can find out who owns it, and go directly to them to fix any problems.

Chuck Ferguson, a vice president with South County’s Scottish Rite Club, thought the problem was so important he had code official Dennis Clift speak to his group at a recent meeting. It was Ferguson who alerted me to the problem and prompted this story.

“As a mediator for the District Court system I see a lot of things, and I’ve worked with a lot of banks on foreclosures,” said the Sun City Center resident. “This is a growing problem due to the economy and people need to be aware of it.”

Ferguson suggests other groups ask Clift to make safety presentation at meetings. “He tells it like it is. He’s very comedic, but he gets the seriousness of the problem across.”

Meanwhile, anyone who knows of a place that should be on the watch list is encouraged to call the South County Regional Service Center Code Enforcement Office at (813) 274-6636 or visit the office at 410 30th Street, S.E., Ruskin.

 

 

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