Building permit scofflaws ask for forgiveness
Three years ago, Enrique and Gilda Perez decided to expand their West Tampa home so her ailing mother could live with them.
The work stalled when Gilda’s mother died, but it started up again when the Perezes’ daughter and her family lost their jobs and home and needed a place to live.
It stalled again last year when city officials discovered the nearly finished addition had been built without permits. Further complicating matters, the addition was bigger than the city allows and swallowed most of the family’s backyard.
Last week, the Perezes asked Tampa City Council members to forgive them.
“I want to apologize for not taking all the steps necessary,” Gilda Perez wrote in a letter to the council.
The Perezes, who declined to comment for this story, are the latest in a long line of Tampa homeowners caught expanding their homes without the proper permits. The changes can include something as simple as enclosing a driveway or as involved as entire new bedrooms and kitchens.
And as Tampa’s real estate market warms back up, buyers run the risk of taking hold of a house with a suspect addition. If the problem comes to light after the sale, the new owner is stuck with the cost of fixing the problems.
Unauthorized changes can go years without being discovered. They can be hard to spot in aerial surveys conducted by the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office. Unless they become a nuisance to the neighbors, additions aren’t likely to draw the attention of the city’s code enforcement officers.
They tend to turn up only when a home sells or, in the case of the Perezes, when the owners approach the city for a permit to do other work.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the same day the city council heard the Perezes’ appeal, the owners of an East Tampa house asked the council to give them the unpaved, public alleyway they had built part of their house over.
In both cases, council members gave in without much of a fight.
“Situations like that do come into play more often than you’d think,” said Rick Barcena, chairman of the city’s Code Enforcement Board. The board reviews violations of housing, noise and other city ordinances and makes recommendations to the city council.
The unlicensed expansions, often done piecemeal by the owner or someone else, can be safety hazards since they’re never inspected. They also can scuttle a potential sale if they turn up in an appraisal or title search, said Mitchell Rothenberg, a Tampa home inspector.
“We’re finding very obvious situations where a permit isn’t pulled, and we call that out,” Rothenberg said. “Sometimes the appraiser will pick that up. But very often there is not an appraiser because it’s a cash sale.”
For the buyer, that can mean paying fines, hiring engineers and navigating the city’s bureaucracy for months. Fear of that bureaucracy often motivates people to go without permits in the first place, Barcena said.
“It’s not a simple process,” he said.
The new owner can end up facing the hoops the previous owner sought to avoid by building without a permit in the first place, he said.
The new owner can also end up paying double or triple the costs of the original permits as a penalty.
The odds that a house has an illegal addition depend largely on where that house sits. Houses in West Tampa turn up with troublesome changes more often than houses anywhere else in the city, Barcena said.
That’s despite the fact that single-family houses in East Tampa, West Tampa and South Tampa are, on average, about the same age: 57 years, according to Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s records.
Barcena says West Tampa residents seem more willing to report violations by their neighbors than residents of East Tampa. South Tampa residents seem to know and follow the rules more, he said.
Houses in North Tampa and New Tampa are considerably younger and — in the case of New Tampa — built in deed-restricted communities that impose limits on what people can do with their property.
Barcena suggested the difference in where violations turn up depends on cultural and economic factors.
“People are not well-to-do,” Barcena said, speaking of West Tampa residents. “They sincerely feel they’re entitled to put that concrete slab down for a patio because they own the property. That’s their homestead.”
In the end, the city council has the right to make any property owner tear down or substantially alter an addition that’s causing problems. But as last week’s council hearings show, the odds are often on the side of the scofflaw.
In both cases, council members excused the improper construction. They voted 7-0 to give up the public alley with a house built on top of it — a decision that needs a second vote on Thursday to become official. They voted 6-1 to excuse the Perezes’ unpermitted construction.
“You have to decide what’s the best thing to do now that you’re in this predicament,” said Councilman Harry Cohen. “We don’t always approve it. It really does come down to case-by-case.”
The council is reluctant to make someone demolish a part of their home, Cohen said — even if it was built improperly.
“Just because we don’t make them tear it down doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay (after the fact) for the permits they didn’t get,” he said.
Council Chairman Charlie Miranda said the city is still dealing with changes made long before there were rules against them. And as long as those changes aren’t a danger to the property owners, their tenants or their neighbors, where’s the harm, he asked.
Said Miranda, “What city is going to create an uproar when everybody’s happy?”