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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Tampa targeting code scofflaws

TAMPA — The Tampa City Council will attempt this morning to rein in property owners who game the city’s code enforcement system by repeatedly letting their buildings deteriorate then fixing them before they can be fined.

Chronic code violators will be part of a workshop that starts at 9 a.m. in Old City Hall.

City officials have spent months trying to figure out how to rein in the city’s scofflaw property owners. Weeks of code enforcement sweeps in some city neighborhoods have uncovered thousands of poorly kept houses. About three-quarters of them are owned by investors.

Some of those property owners turn up repeatedly in the ticket books of city code inspectors yet avoid punishment by fixing violations before they can end up in front of a judge, special magistrate or the code enforcement board. Doing so keeps them from being labeled repeat offenders, a designation that lets the city take a tougher approach to violations.

Former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown is an example of how some landowners abused the system. Brown was cited 58 times in 10 years for code violations at properties he owns in Tampa. He was never named a repeat offender because he fixed the problems in the time allowed by state law, avoiding a trip to court or the code board.

City Council members hope to close that loophole by creating a city ordinance that declares landowners chronic violators if they get multiple tickets — regardless of whether they fix the problem or not.

Chronic violators would be issued a “notice to appear,” forcing them to explain their actions to a judge in the municipal ordinance courts recently created within the Hillsborough County Circuit Court, said Ernest Mueller, the assistant city attorney over code enforcement.

What makes someone a chronic violator?

That’ll will be up to the council, said Mueller.

“They’re going to give me the definition of a chronic violator,” he said.

One possibility could be a sort of “three strikes” ordinance that triggers a court appearance if a property owner receives three citations in a specific period of time, said Councilman Mike Suarez.

Exactly what period of time?

That’ll be up for debate, said Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin.

“I don’t have any magic number,” she said.

The council will also have to confront the division between people who won’t keep up their property and people who can’t keep up their property, Mueller said.

Suarez wants the city to take a gentle approach to the poor and elderly who get caught up in the chronic violator net.

“If for some reason there’s a mitigating factor, bring that up and tell us what’s going on,” Suarez said.

The city gets federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that can be used to help the poor and elderly repair their homes. The money is limited and the pool has been shrinking.

Should the city put its own money into a fix-it-up fund?

Council members are divided.

“I’d be willing to support that, but we need to put restrictions on it,” Councilman Frank Reddick said.

Any funds should be limited to the poor and elderly who can prove they need the help, he said.

“This could be a great opportunity for our new grant writer to pursue additional funds to help senior citizens,” Reddick added.

Capin and Suarez were more skeptical, given the city’s limited resources and the scope of the problem.

“We would never have enough money to do all the housing in Tampa,” Capin said.

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