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Houses torched in Tampa


TAMPA, FLORIDA (February 15, 2000) -- About a house a week is burning in Tampa in purposely set fires.

Fortunately, no one has been killed or seriously injured but 70 houses in the

last two years have been destroyed by fire in the historic Tampa Heights and Ybor neighborhoods.

"My greatest fear is the loss of life," said Roger Leseney, coordinator of

housing for the Tampa United Methodist Centers. "People are going to get hurt."

Leseney's office is in the Ybor area, and three other Tampa United Methodist

Centers also are located in same historic area where fires have been occurring.

"The once thriving neighborhoods are now a mix of houses, which are somewhat

isolated. Clusters of two or three houses are boarded up. Many lots, once occupied, are now vacant," said Leseney. He estimated 100 houses are vacant in the area today. The city and nonprofit organizations buy the older properties, restore or move homes that are salvageable to different locations, and demolish those deemed unsalvageable.

Most, if not all of the fires destroying the vacant houses have been purposely set. Most of these arsons are unresolved. Only a couple of people have been arrested for arson in the area. No one has been convicted.

Of the houses that were set on fire, all were boarded up. Some were owned by

the city and others were owned by United Methodist Centers and other nonprofit organizations, according to Leseney.

The epidemic of fires has been ongoing for about six years, the same length

of time that the city has been pursuing an extensive urban renewal plan.

City officials and residents report that the neighborhoods are more vulnerable because of their transient population, that abandoned areas are often frequented by vagrants and homeless people, and that evidence of alcohol and drug abuse have been found there.

To make the area more habitable, Tampa United Methodist Centers works with the city government to purchase houses with government funds, renovate the houses, and make them available via low interest loans to people who cannot otherwise purchase a house.

Last summer the Barrio Latino Commission of the Ybor neighborhood criticized city officials for bulldozing a burned house that was deemed historic without first checking with the commission.

Such tension has added to the stress of neighborhood association leaders, because the city wants a great deal of Tampa Heights to be renovated so it will attract higher income residents to expensive homes in a renaissance-type urban renewal project. City plans also call for non-residential riverfront real estate including a marina, a hotel, business offices, and shops.

Tampa Heights, the city's oldest neighborhood, suffers from urban decay,

pollution, and the now-common urban exodus to the suburbs. Tampa's Mayor Dick Creco hopes to change the trend and reclaim the historic area with an $84 million revitalization plan.

In the meantime, Tampa Heights and Ybor activists are struggling to keep

their neighborhood intact for its remaining residents, many who are lower income and don't have the option of moving elsewhere. Cuban residents originally settled Ybor at the turn of the last century. Now residents in the two neighborhoods say they feel threatened by the ongoing fires.

The threat of arson is a justified reality not only in Tampa, but in many other

major U.S. cities as well.

Some 16,000 residential dwellings are set on fire every year claiming nearly 140 lives and costing $237 million, according to the National Fire Data Center, a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Earlier this month, a man suspected of splashing a flammable liquid on an

apartment floor and sparking a blaze that killed four children was arrested in New Orleans.

Last month investigators of the deadly fire in a Seton Hall University

dormitory believed the fire was set, and police reported recently that at least four suspects were identified in the Jan. 19 blaze that killed three freshmen.

A national increase in such fires in the mid-1990s caused FEMA to ask

President Clinton to establish the National Arson Prevention Initiative. He authorized FEMA to coordinate public and private resources to support arson prevention efforts nationwide. At that time FEMA reported as many as 250,000 fires were set each year by juveniles under the age of 18, killing more than

500 people and destroying some $3 billion worth of property. The report

stated juveniles started more than 50 percent of arson fires, and that one in four fires is intentionally set.

Posted Feb. 15, 2000

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