Landlord's many citations aren't unique
TAMPA - After code enforcement officials shut down his illegal trailer park this month, William "Hoe" Brown described the squalid operation as simply a mistake.
But a review of city records suggests it's how landlord Brown does business.
A Republican fundraiser and party committeeman who quit as chairman of the Tampa Port Authority once the trailer park came to light, Brown frequently has let his Tampa properties fall into disrepair until he is ticketed by the city and forced to clean them up.
Brown has been cited for code violations nearly 60 times since 2003 but never been declared a repeat offender - a step that would give the city more power to curtail his behavior.
"It's not as easy as we would like it to be," said Ernie Mueller, Tampa's assistant city attorney for code enforcement.
This month, in large part because of his prominent status in the community, Brown became the public face of Tampa's chronic problem enforcing city property codes.
"He's not alone," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "There are hundreds like him out there."
Buckhorn quickly launched a 30-day sweep by code enforcement officers targeting three sections of the city. Officers are working seven days a week rooting out what the mayor called "the worst of the worst" offenders.
Even after all the tickets are written and the hearings set, it's unclear whether it will change scofflaw landowners.
That's because city efforts so far have been hobbled by state laws tilted in favor of property owners - and by the city's own procedures.
Michael Wolf, a real-estate law professor at the University of Florida, said state lawmakers are largely to blame.
"Florida's municipalities have lost what in other jurisdictions is a very important hammer in all this - eminent domain," Wolf said.
In 2006, a state constitutional amendment pushed by the Legislature and adopted by voters took away local governments' ability to condemn land to promote economic development unless the Legislature approves each case. That has left cities such as Tampa without one of its biggest sticks when dealing with slumlords.
"We barely keep our heads above water because we're hamstrung by the process we can't control," Buckhorn said. "And there's no penalty for being a prolific violator. That's what our people put up with every day."
Brown offers an object lesson in what the city is up against.
The Tampa Tribune reviewed a decade's worth of code enforcement records for seven of the eight properties Brown owns in the city. In that time, Brown racked up 58 citations, more than half of them for two residential properties.
One property, 710 N. Newport Ave., has had no violations since Brown bought it in November.
Brown has never paid a fine as a result of his citations.
Here are highlights from the review:
Brown has a history of letting both his residential and commercial properties accumulate piles of trash and become overgrown with weeds. After being ticketed by the city, he has taken six to eight weeks to correct some problems. Potential safety issues were fixed in as little as a few days.
Brown was ordered on July 16 to convert a subdivided house he owns at 106 W. Stanley St. back to a single-family home or go through the proper channels to establish it formally as a combined office-residential property complete with off-street parking. The building contains apartments and the offices of his real estate company.
Brown owns a small motel at North Florida Avenue and West Stanley Street that has been ticketed by code enforcement officers 14 times in the past 10 years. The citations ranged from derelict cars on the property to missing smoke detectors.
In their reports, code inspectors describe the motel as a deteriorated structure.
In 2005, an inspector noted: "(A)pt. 9 stove shocks you when you try to use it, sewage backing up into the shower, windows will not open throughout the entire hotel, no smoke detectors." Two months later, the inspector met with Brown's property manager and the case was closed.
In 2006, Brown was ordered to repair the damaged wire grounding the motel's circuit-breaker box and to repair water damage from a leaky roof in one apartment. Brown fixed the problems, and the case was closed five days later.
In 2008, citizen complaints brought inspectors back to the motel twice within three months. Brown was ordered to fix a leaking air-conditioning unit along with the drywall and carpeting it had ruined. He also had to repair another damaged ceiling, paint the entire building and replace missing smoke detectors. Four days later, inspectors closed that case, too.
"No fines due or paid," are the last words of the report.
Tenants of the motel declined to speak with a reporter who visited the site last week, but Brown soon appeared and demanded the reporter identify himself.
Then he handed over a cellphone, saying, "This is for you."
On the other end was Beth Leytham, whose public relations firm Brown hired this month to handle the fallout when news broke of his illegal trailer park.
Leytham said there are far worse code violators than Brown in Tampa. She cited three condemned properties where people are still living.
She said many of Brown's tenants destroy and vandalize property, including disabling smoke alarms so they can smoke in their units. He treats his properties for pests and thinks tenants should be responsible for housekeeping and personal habits, she said.
Leytham provided a statement from Brown:
"I have provided stable housing with electricity, including air conditioning, and indoor plumbing to people struggling with very serious personal issues and who otherwise may have gone homeless. I have attended to property maintenance matters as quickly as possible once made of aware of them, and have not had a fine or lien filed against me."
It's hard to say where Brown ranks among code violators.
The city doesn't track repeat offenders, according to Code Enforcement director Jake Slater.
The city has no internal process for declaring an individual property owner a repeat offender. That declaration comes through the Code Enforcement Board or a civil court proceeding, said Ernie Mueller, assistant city attorney for code enforcement.
Property owners who fix their violations promptly never get to the code board or court, so they never get labeled repeat offenders even if, like Brown, they get cited over and over for the same property, Mueller said.
State law demands property owners get a chance to correct code violations before facing a hearing or fine.
"If you look at the statute, it really limits what municipalities can do," said Susan Johnson Velez, president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association.
State law caps fines and jail time for violators. Because cases are closed as soon as the violations are fixed, property owners who respond quickly can avoid fines. Their de facto penalty is the expense of making the repairs the city orders.
"There are a fair amount of people for whom it's just the cost of doing business," Johnson Velez said. "What do you do with someone like that?"
Tampa and other cities used to have the option of taking over problem properties through their power of eminent domain. That let them clean up blighted areas by demolishing substandard properties and bringing redevelopment, Wolf said.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2005 that such action is a justifiable use of public power. The next year, Florida legislators banned the use of eminent domain to clear away blight.
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio led the state House committee that wrote the legislation, out of concern that the Supreme Court ruling would lead to abuse of property rights. That same year, Florida voters passed the constitutional amendment that mirrored Rubio's legislation.
"The landowners are entitled to the protection of their constitutional rights," Wolf said. "Florida went as far, if not farther, than any other state."
Dan Peterson, executive director for the Orlando-based Coalition for Property Rights, supports the limitations on eminent domain. "In my experience, property owners take better care of their property than the government does," he said.
But he also sees a need for local governments to be able to restrict people who abuse the code process's loopholes. "It's not a property right to be continually out of compliance," Peterson said. "That's willful disregard for the law and the ordinances."
In trying to extend property rights, the Legislature opened up another route for cities to clean up blight - one without the constitutional guarantee of compensation for lost property.
Cities can declare a problem property a public nuisance and demolish it in the name of public safety without paying the owner a dime, Wolf said.
"Something has to be pretty egregious to rise to that level," Johnson Velez said.
Buckhorn essentially has used that approach in Sulphur Springs and North Tampa, where his Nehemiah Project has targeted 86 derelict homes for demolition.
None has been formally declared a public nuisance. That takes a court ruling. But Buckhorn has justified demolition by declaring them havens for drug dealers, prostitution and crime.
The city leaves the underlying land in the owner's hands, avoiding an eminent domain fight.
When he began Nehemiah in January, Buckhorn said the project would clear the way for private developers to reinvent one of Tampa's most troubled neighborhoods.
That approach requires the city to go property by property, a slower and costlier process than the kind of sweeping approach the Supreme Court allowed in 2005.
Buckhorn said the house-by-house approach will have to do.
"We don't have the resources to fix everybody's private property."