Tampa’s code enforcement watchdog fights on
TAMPA — Some people describe Pete Johnson as annoying. An irritant. The same thing over and over.
And these are people who like him.
Johnson earned the adjectives during 13 years pushing Tampa to clean up its code enforcement system.
He’s a regular speaker at city council meetings and a pebble in the shoe of Tampa’s public officials. He has made himself an expert in Tampa’s housing codes and the state laws that regulate them. He even moved into downtown Tampa two years ago to be closer to his adversaries at City Hall.
“He annoys some people,” said Susan Long.
She spent three years on the receiving end of Johnson’s criticism when she was on the Code Enforcement Board. Today, she frequently shares a podium with him when code issues arise in her neighborhood of Seminole Heights.
“Some people won’t even talk to him any more,” Long said. “He pesters and he pesters and he pesters.”
Last month’s revelation that William “Hoe” Brown, then chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, operated a squalid, illegal mobile home park in Seminole Heights prompted city officials to pour time and attention into some of the most run-down communities — the same ones Johnson has spent years asking them to do something about.
“These people need to be held accountable,” Johnson said recently, his gruff, baritone voice filling his small home office.
Johnson moved to Tampa from Miami in 1996 to care for a friend who had contracted HIV. He stayed on after the friend died and bought a house near Busch Gardens. His campaign for better code enforcement began soon after.
“It is the one department in the city of Tampa that can do the most good for everybody,” Johnson said. “It can improve the budget. It can improve the crime rate. In can improve quality of life.”
Wanted to do something with his life
Today, Johnson, 63, lives alone in a spartan apartment at downtown’s Metro 510 affordable-housing complex. His blue bicycle hangs from a hook in the spare bedroom he has turned into a home office.
Johnson gets by on federal disability benefits. He’s been HIV positive himself nearly 20 years and takes dozens of pills each day to keep the virus in check.
When he was diagnosed with HIV nearly 20 years ago, he considered it a death sentence. Anti-HIV drugs gave him his life back.
“After realizing I wasn’t going to die, I decided to do something with my life,” Johnson said. “And this is what I did.”
He has fashioned himself a new career as Tampa’s code enforcement watchdog.
In his office, filing cabinets hold 3,000 code-enforcement cases he’s trying to get the city to act on. Binders on the shelves over his desk hold lists of scofflaw property owners, some with dozens of violations going back into the 1990s.
He has spent years hammering the city to shut down derelict trailer parks and shining a light on slumlords citywide.
City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said she asked Johnson for his advice soon after she took office.
“I wanted to hear from him because he had been focused on this issue for a long time,” Montelione said. “I knew the issues that faced my neighborhood, but not the ones that faced the neighborhoods close to the Gandy bridge.”
Still, it can be tempting to tune Johnson out as he makes yet another case for changes to code enforcement, she said.
“When he speaks at the podium, often times it is the same thing over and over again: Would you guys do something?” Montelione said. “It’s not so much the words he’s saying. It’s the evidence he’s presenting.”
Johnson does the legwork and the research — all of it at his own expense — building cases that would take the city much longer to develop, she said.
“We need people like that, who are going to hold an issue and follow it and try and accomplish whatever their goal is,” Montelione said. “I tell people all the time I can’t be on every street every day at multiple hours.”
Calling for policy change
Johnson has had some victories over the years, but he’s taking the long view. He wants the city to be tougher on landowners who game the code system, avoiding fines despite repeated citations.
He compares that to the state’s plan to put extra focus on restaurants that repeatedly score poorly on inspections. He’d also like Tampa to be more like Temple Terrace, where every code violation goes to a hearing even if the owner fixes the problem.
Johnson is skeptical Tampa can accomplish something similar.
“Until they change the policy on how they attack code violations and hold people accountable, it’ll never happen,” Johnson said.
The city council dedicated most of its Aug. 1 meeting to discussing the city’s code enforcement problems and ways they could be fixed. The options included training city employees and neighborhood leaders to spot violations and changing state law to let cities tack unpaid code fines onto property tax bills.
Johnson sat through the entire discussion. At the end, he was the lone person in the audience. He stepped to the podium and thanked the council for giving code enforcement so much attention.
But Montelione knows that moment was just a reprieve in Johnson’s one-man campaign to improve Tampa’s code enforcement.
“He’s never going to be satisfied,” she said.