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For rent: Rooms by the week, nice suburban location

TAMPA — In one house, a man was committed under the Baker Act — twice. Another man was accused of smashing a car mirror in a fight with his girlfriend. A third resident brawled with his wife and brother-in-law.

Under that same roof, a 47-year-old man died in a bed littered with empty vodka bottles. A woman got so angry at her sister that she threatened to "bust her teeth out," and dumped her belongings into the road, running over them repeatedly with a pickup truck.

It's a lot of activity for a 1,700-square-foot ranch home on Orange Grove Drive in original Carrollwood, but not unusual for some of the houses owned by Nicolas Soto Jr.

Soto owns nine houses in some of northern Hillsborough's nicest neighborhoods. For close to a decade, he's been renting most of them out by the room and by the week — a practice that county officials say is entirely legal.

The same can't be said for some of his renters, who include criminals, drug abusers, alcoholics and the mentally ill. Soto, 62, says those problem tenants are in the minority, and that he's doing a service for people who might be down on their luck.

His detractors say he brings crime and depravity into otherwise tranquil communities.

"It drives me nuts," said Edward O'Brien, who lives near a Soto house in tidy Fairway Village, just south of Carrollwood Village.

Carrollwood's Beacon Meadows has three Soto houses. Now rented to families, they all were rented by the room in recent years.

"It was like living next to a bus station," said neighbor Barbara Appel, 48. "Kids go to the other side of the street. We've had 10-minute stopovers, swearing, loud music. It's total disrespect for what you would consider appropriate for a single-family, residential neighborhood."

Renters with baggage

Creative rental situations are just one manifestation of the roller coaster ride that is real estate in Florida.

In St. Petersburg, code enforcement officials get calls when rental activity increases in established, family-oriented neighborhoods. When people complain, "most of the time, the upkeep is a problem," said code enforcement operations manager Gary Bush.

But these days, Bush said he is more concerned about abandoned properties than renters, as is his counterpart across Tampa Bay.

"In today's economic climate, at least the building is occupied and it is being maintained," said Jim Blinck, manager for Hillsborough County code enforcement.

Hillsborough County's rules allow as many as five unrelated adults to live under one roof. As long as the dwelling is large enough and not subdivided with separate entrances, it's not considered a rooming house.

Soto maintains that the typical renter, paying $125 to $150 a week, is new in town, recently separated, or person who simply lacks the motivation to find and furnish a home of their own.

Less typical, he said, is Richard Gravette, 30, who has been arrested 16 times since his first drunken driving charge when he was 18.

While living at one of the Beacon Meadows homes, records show, Gravette called sheriff's deputies five times to report his roommates had stolen money or prescription drugs. One of those times was while he was in jail.

Alcohol and drugs figured into the deaths of two men who lived in Soto's homes. There was Clarence Avinger, who was discovered by his roommate in Original Carrollwood in 2004.

Then, in early 2007, sheriff's reports say Roberto Gonzalez, 44, of Beacon Meadows, died after removing his own teeth after someone hit him in the face with a pipe at an apartment complex. Thomas Burkhiser, who found Gonzalez, at one point told investigators he had given Gonzalez some drugs. Three weeks later, on Jan. 22, court records show Soto evicted Burkhiser. He died about 10 days later, reports say.

Deputies have visited the homes to serve warrants and search for fugitives. Neighbors reported hearing gunfire near a Soto home in the Plantation subdivision. Deputies have responded to calls about domestic violence and drunken fighting. In one report, a deputy described one Beacon Meadows home as a "known crack house."

On at least a dozen occasions, Soto has called deputies, usually to assist with evictions or help him recover stolen property from his renters. The sheriff's calls, combined, total close to 150.

Landlord: I help renters

Born in Puerto Rico, Soto is divorced with two grown children. "I always wanted to be in real estate," he said.

So, a decade after buying the first house in Beacon Meadows, he took advantage of the runup in housing prices and leveraged it to buy more.

His models included Carleton Sheets, the real estate guru of cable television. He would buy a house, mortgage it, then buy another. He took a roommate in the Beacon Meadows house to help pay expenses. He realized that, by renting to multiple tenants, he could cover his mortgages and buy more houses.

When values rose, so did his equity. Then, like so many investors, he was hit hard by the real estate crash. Now he looks back on the work he did arranging repairs, placing advertisements and collecting rent.

"I worked 20 years for nothing," he said. "I lost all my net worth."

And lately he's having trouble finding enough renters. The houses are in various stages of foreclosure. He acknowledges he has taken chances on tenants who might not qualify for conventional leases. "Once I get 'em, if can work with it, I work with it," he said. "But desperate people do desperate things."

He's loaned money to renters and found jobs for them, he said. He lives on a cul-de-sac in Country Place, with two of his renters.

One of them, Vera Rohde, is 78 and in poor health. She said that Soto carries in her groceries, loans her money and watches the evening television news with her. She is grateful that he is there in case she has an emergency.

"I have the best landlord in the world," she said.

Despite the turnover in renters, Soto maintains his homes and landscaping up to neighborhood standards. He has avoided any problems with the civic associations in Northdale and Original Carrollwood.

In Fairway Village, however, neighbors were put off by the sight of a "Room For Rent" sign, O'Brien said. He also took offense when a female tenant on a bicycle flicked a lit cigarette onto his parched lawn, and when somebody left hard-core pornography on a stack of yard clippings.

Carol Coon, a Leto High School math teacher who is president of the Beacon Meadows taxing district, got to know Soto when, during a brief stint as a real estate agent, she helped Soto buy the Plantation house.

"It is his intent not to make these into flophouses, but he wants to make money," she said. "But there are some people who have problems simply because of the baggage that comes with them."

Renter: mixed experiences

Richard King, 66, is a retired construction worker who lived in one of the Beacon Meadows homes twice while separated from his wife.

"Sometimes I paid $600 a month, sometimes $640," he said. The first time wasn't too bad, except people would sometimes take his food.

The second time, he said, "one guy was on dope and another guy was on dope." He stayed on Soto's good side by paying his rent on time, he said.

King's circumstances fit Soto's description of his typical renter — just a regular person who needed a place to stay and perhaps lacked credit, furniture or rental references.

"I know that I am doing a person a favor who cannot find a place to live, giving him a chance to live in a nice neighborhood," he said. "And I am keeping that house from being empty and being in foreclosure."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at or (813) 909-4602.

For rent: Rooms by the week, nice suburban location 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 9:57pm]
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