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St. Petersburg improves its housing stock by transforming vacant lots into affordable housing

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.”

Corbett, 41, got his bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of South Florida and worked for a while as a building contractor. In 2005, he found a job with the city’s code enforcement office; after training, he was assigned to investigate code violations in an affluent area northeast of downtown. His success in resolving a case involving a hoarder who kept “all types of junk in his yard” was a milestone. “It took awhile to resolve, but the neighborhood was very happy, and I found a passion for the job.”

In 2014, as the city emerged from the Great Recession, he began combining that passion with an approach to improving neighborhoods by dealing aggressively with owners of derelict houses and vacant properties. “I was not a tenured government employee, and I probably still don’t think like the average government employee,” he says. “I think like a businessperson.”

Corbett started compiling an inventory of the boarded- up and vacant properties that dotted the city. He counted 830 homes that either needed major repairs or had deteriorated so much that they needed to be demolished.

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.

But as dilapidated houses were torn down or refurbished, many lots remained vacant and neglected, eroding surrounding property values and the local tax base. Basic maintenance often fell to city workers, draining time and resources. “In the summertime, we’d have to mow the grass twice a month religiously,” Corbett says. “We called them dead or zombie properties because no one wanted to touch them.”

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.

He found that one entity, a real estate investment firm from Aventura, owned about 60 zombie lots, most acquired after purchasing tax liens on the parcels.

Corbett reckoned that the firm never had any real interest in owning land in St. Petersburg. And as the company continued to pile up code violations, he proposed that the city foreclose on its properties.

“That’s how this whole thing started,” he says. “My thought was, let’s foreclose. It’s not like we’re kicking some family out of their house. This is literally a large company that doesn’t care anything about this city, and one of two things will happen: They’ll either pay their liens, or their properties will be sold and someone else will get them.”

The company’s legal response to the foreclosures was “like waking the bear,” Corbett says. “I learned quickly why a lot of cities are afraid to try new things,” he says. He persevered. “I had to produce a lot of data, but because I’m a data person, it worked out. We were successful” in foreclosing on the company’s properties.

Matt Weidner, the local attorney hired to help with lien foreclosures, says the program took off from there.

“At first, these lots were going up to auction, and maybe somebody would pay $5,000 or $6,000. People caught wind of it and said, ‘Whoa, you mean I can get a lot down there for $5,000, and I can build on it and it has clear title? Yeah, give me that,’ ” Weidner recalls.

St. Petersburg has since initiated foreclosure proceedings against 635 properties, including many from the city’s original boarded and vacant property list. The city foreclosed on 235 and then sold them. It worked out lien repayment or settlement agreements with another 330, and 70 remain in foreclosure.

The approach has cost the city $1.3 million in legal fees, but it has collected $4.4 million in previously unpaid fines. More important, Corbett says, most of the lots are now up to code and no longer blighted, and developers have plans to build homes on many.

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.

By 2018, St. Petersburg’s housing market had heated up, and speculators were buying abandoned lots just to sit on them and wait for prices to rise, says Corbett, who became director of codes enforcement that year. All the while, low- and moderate-income families struggled to find 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 firsttime home buyers.

Last August, Corbett attended an opening of one such home on a brick street with mature oak trees in Midtown, an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in south-central St. Petersburg. The home that had been on the site fell into disrepair, racked up more than $34,000 in liens, court costs and fees and was demolished. (Photos taken by code enforcement officers at the time showed trash strewn in the yard, a front door with rotting wood and a roof that seemed ready to collapse.)

After acquiring the lot through foreclosure, the city gave it to Habitat for Humanity, which then built a 1,300-sq.-ft. house and sold it to a single mother of two for $210,000. An American flag now hangs from the front porch — one of the tidier homes on a block of mostly fixer-uppers.

“I kind of see myself,” Corbett says, revisiting the site several months later. “I remember when my mom was finally able to buy a home. The fact that I had anything to do with it feels good. I wish I could do it a hundred times.”

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.”

830 – Derelict homes in St. Petersburg in 2014

110 – Approximate number of vacant and boarded properties currently – roughly one-eighth the number it had in 2014

$1.3 million – Amount St. Petersburg spent on attorney fees to initiate foreclosure

$4.4 million – Amount of unpaid fines collected

635 – Foreclosure proceedings to date

235 – Foreclosed homes sold

330 – Lien repayment or settlement agreements reached

70 – Homes that remain in foreclosure

The Skinny on Code Enforcement

Like all cities, St. Petersburg has a set of municipal codes that regulates the development and maintenance of residential properties, from how high a fence can be built to where cars can park and what to do with yard debris.

Typically, a code violation is called in through the city’s information line. A member of the city’s code enforcement staff then goes to the site and issues a notice if a violation is found. After that, the owner has up to 30 days to address the violation or face penalties.

If the warning period passes without a resolution, the city can impose daily fines of up to $500 and place a lien on the property, preventing the seller from conveying a clear title. A lien also allows the city to foreclose on a property and auction it off to collect payment.

Matt Weidner, a St. Petersburg foreclosure attorney, says other cities rarely view code enforcement as a way to turn around abandoned properties. “I call it file and forget,” Weidner says. “The city files a lien and mows the grass for five or six years, and then lo and behold, things get so bad that the city has to board up the windows and the roof, and that costs taxpayer money.

“Then, a hurricane or some other storm comes through, and the city has to demolish it,” he says. “That’s the evolution of this stuff. Cities are spending millions of dollars to demolish properties and record liens and never collecting that money.”

In 2015, St. Petersburg hired Weidner to clear the titles to long-abandoned properties and determine how to prevent them from staying abandoned. He says the lien foreclosure process is used only for vacant and abandoned properties and doesn’t force anyone out of a home. The process takes as little as six months, faster than with eminent domain.

“One of the most interesting takeaways is that in the vast majority of cases, people tell us, ‘Great, get this property off my hands,’ ” he says. “If it’s in your name and you don’t want anything to do with it, it’s a liability.”

Weidner has since begun working with Bradenton and Largo to foreclose on nuisance properties.

Sitting at his computer on a recent Thursday, he pulled up a spreadsheet of pending demolitions in Tampa, where he’s been trying to persuade city officials to implement a similar program.

“After we spend $20,000 to demolish 1808 E. Annonia Ave., what do we do next?” he says, referring to a derelict house on the list. “What we do is file a lien for the $20,000 it costs taxpayers to demolish it, and then we just move on to the next one. No.”

Weidner argues that cities owe it to taxpayers to collect on their liens and put abandoned properties back on the tax rolls.

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.

County officials said the caps would allow more investors to buy properties with liens because they know they can settle the lien price.

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.