Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Sue Carlton: A slumlord scandal in a city of contradictions

So a top Republican fundraiser who is a name in this town got a more dubious entry for his resume this week: "Slumlord."

That's what a Tampa City Council member called William "Hoe" Brown for renting out apartments to the poor that were places a code enforcement official called unfit for humans to live.

Trusted public figure, or predatory businessman?

Even the neighborhood that set the scene for this scandal is a classic Tampa contradiction.

The in-the-news properties owned by Brown — who is notably also chairman of the Tampa Port Authority — sit just off busy Florida Avenue's jumble of used car lots, seedy motels and chain-link fences at an ugly edge of Seminole Heights.

Outside his office on Stanley Street, Brown plopped five illegal single-wide mobile homes, split each into two tiny units and had signs around town to get people on public assistance to pay $550 a month to live in them. This week, as Times reporters Will Hobson and Jamal Thalji looked into conditions that included roach infestation, Brown had the trailers removed.

But keep going down Stanley Street and the world changes. Modest, tidy houses, nicer bungalows and a grand dame house or two sit under graceful oaks dripping Spanish moss on streets sloping toward the Hillsborough River. It's a neighborhood solid and thriving, despite what you might drive through to get to it. A couple of fat chickens strutted across the road — sign of a less affluent neighborhood, or just the latest in urban chic? It's Tampa, and anyone's guess.

Seminole Heights is very different from the classic South Tampa, South-of-Kennedy address that houses much of the city's monied and powerful. But on its best streets, Seminole Heights is what you want in a true city neighborhood: Beautiful old houses lovingly rehabbed, shady tree canopies, trendy restaurants and bars, a true neighborhood vibe.

Ours is a nice town with pockets of squalor, stubborn ones in nearby Sulphur Springs, where the city has launched an ambitious project to demolish abandoned houses and where blight has historically crept back. Always, it seems, you have landlords willing to let even children live in appalling conditions in crumbling duplexes and apartments, so long as the rent checks come.

Details stand out in the revelations from Stanley Street: Brown's campaign signs used to block shattered windows. Brown saying he was sorry and accepting blame and claiming he was only recently aware of problems even though this was behind his office. Brown peeling off a fat stack of $100 bills to pay a few months' rent to residents displaced when his mobile homes were hauled off.

What will the headlines mean for someone who has worn many public-minded hats in this town, who has thrown his fundraising weight behind the likes of Mitt Romney and Pam Bondi? What a sticky wicket for Gov. Rick Scott when it comes to Brown's post on the port's governing board — since Scott has morphed into Gov. Good Guy in his bid for re-election and is not likely eager to be aligned with allegations of greed regarding a fellow Republican.

Still, it was good to hear local officials who know Tampa from public housing to Bayshore mansions say this is not okay, and not who we are.

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