For many people struggling to afford rent in Tampa, owning a home could provide more space, more stability and sometimes even a lower monthly cost.
But a lot of them don’t believe home ownership is within their reach.
City officials and housing advocates are working to change that.
Bridget Catledge has been living in a house in Tampa's Terrace Park neighborhood for a little over a year.
On a recent afternoon, the 53-year-old gave a tour of the house, beaming with pride over every little detail – the French doors in the living room, the garden she’s planting outside, even an attic fan she said reminds her of her childhood home.
“I’m kind of geeky when it comes to this house because I just love the heck out of it,” she said.
Catledge bought her home for $184,000 in the summer of 2017, with help from the City of Tampa's Mortgage Assistance Program.
It offers to help people who want to buy a home in Tampa, but don't have the initial funds to do so. The city provides up to $15,000 for down payment and closing costs, if it’s a buyer’s first time trying to get a house or they haven't owned a home in over three years, like Catledge.
She lost her house to foreclosure in 2010 after losing a job as an appliance technician at Sears. For a few years, Catledge bounced around, working part time and living in an apartment with her adult son. She eventually found a job working at the Florida Orthopedic Institute’s IT help desk and moved in with a friend in Zephyrhills.
The situation was far from ideal.
"I had a twin-sized bed in a bedroom where I couldn't close the door because it hit the bed,” she said. “There was no closet in the bedroom and my clothes were piled up on the edge of my bed, so I slept on my clothes, which I had to get up in the morning and shower and iron out those same clothes that I slept on because there was no place to put them. The refrigerator was out on the back porch, so yeah, it was pretty tight."
Splitting the rent made costs easier for Catledge: she paid about $600 a month. But she said the stress over the lack of space and feeling like a guest in someone else's home really took its toll.
"Now I'm paying $984” a month, she said. “I've got a 4-bedroom, 2-bath home, 1,650 square feet, a half-acre of land, a pool, a picket fence, a screened-in porch that is huge!
“You know, I could have a dance party out there."
Catledge said she was earning about $47,000 a year when she bought the house. And while some may think that’s a pretty decent salary, Vanessa McCleary, the city's Housing and Community Development Manager, said that is exactly the level of income Tampa is targeting with this program.
“I know that a lot of people, when they think of our programs, they think, ‘Oh, you have to be poor… and that’s not it,” she said. “What we’re realizing is that if we don’t help those working families that have jobs to stabilize their home and their family life, then what are we doing to really help our city?”
In Tampa, the money the city gives acts as a silent second mortgage on the home. If the owner stays in the house for five years and pays their mortgage on time, the loan is fully forgiven.
And this isn't the city doing charity work, McCleary said. Tampa benefits from having more homeowners.
"Once you have people that aren't as transient as renters are, you're also stabilizing the schools,” she said. “So now with homeowners, you have kids that are remaining in the same school year after year instead of moving from house to house.”
“By stabilizing the neighborhoods, you're also reducing crime in the neighborhoods, you're beautifying the neighborhoods, you're strengthening the tax base for the city,” McCleary said. “So for the city, how we make Tampa an even better place to live is through homeownership."
Like anyone who goes through the Mortgage Assistance Program, Bridget Catledge had to meet certain requirements to qualify (see below).
There is a cap on how much money you can earn depending on the size of household, based on income limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For someone who lives alone like Catledge, it's about $63,000 a year.
Catledge also had to take a class on homeownership. The city designated courses from four housing counseling agencies that potential homeowners could choose from that help break down the often-complicated process of buying a house.
Catledge chose the Housing and Education Alliance in Tampa. Sylvia Alvarez is its executive director.
“We cover…budgeting and avoiding predatory lending practices, how to choose a house, how to choose a realtor, who is at the closing, etc.” she said.
The eight-hour course also places a strong emphasis on not only buying a home, but keeping it. First-time homeowners have to understand that it's on them to do maintenance and repairs – there's no landlord to call for help.
“Because there are a lot of things that could go wrong, and you better be prepared with an emergency fund,” Alvarez said.
Outside a recent course in Tampa, 49 year-old lab technician Cherise Campbell said owning a home would give her the stability she craves.
"When I first moved in, my house it was $875 (a month), then $925. And now it’s going up to $960, and I’m just so tired of this,” she said. “And no matter where I move to, it’s going to keep going up, and now I’m at the point where I might as well try to buy a house."
Campbell said her biggest concern was that her credit score wouldn’t be up to par with the city’s requirements.
Sylvia Alvarez said that is often the biggest hurdle first-time homebuyers face, but that housing counselors can help clients improve their credit score. She said it may take a few months to get someone “mortgage ready,” or a couple of years if the person has bad credit and a lot of debt.
“We stay with them and we hold their hand through the process, then at the end we have a little party for them at the closing, and then we go to the next family and start all over again,” she said.
Alvarez said helping more people become homeowners also could reduce demand for Tampa's rental stock and potentially slow the rising rents. The problem, she said, is there are not enough affordable homes for people to buy.
"You can't find anything for less than $220-250 [thousand] that doesn't just fly off the market, and multiple offers and going over the asking price, we’re seeing that a lot,” she said.
Data from the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies in Gainesville finds most of the homes purchased for $200,000 or less last year in Hillsborough County were bought by investors or people buying a second home.
Bridget Catledge said she watched her house go off the market twice.
"So some days, I was in a good mood thinking everything is going right, I gave you all the forms you need, and then the next day, I see the house is off the market and I'm having a fit,” she said.
Catledge credits her housing counselors at the Housing and Education Alliance for motivating her to stick with the process.
She ultimately got lucky – not only did the house come back on the market, but it did so at a reduced price she could finally afford.
But housing advocates say until more affordable homes are built in this area, happy endings like hers may be few and far between.