Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

One year after Blackstone house declared unsafe, little done to fix the damage

BRANDON

The ugliest home on Oakwood Avenue is swaddled in ratty tarp, its sludge-green swimming pool a Club Med for mosquitoes, its back yard spiked with rusty nails.

Last year, a falling oak smashed through the roof. The ragged hole still yawns open, exposing a family den soaked with filth. Neighbors whisper of squatters, and who knows what else: A neighbor's cat recently brought her a long-tailed rat.

Another abandoned foreclosed home? Not quite. This one has a rich owner: Invitation Homes, an investment giant that has spent more than $7 billion buying houses under its parent company, Blackstone, the largest real estate private-equity firm in the world.

Calling the home a "public nuisance," Hillsborough County officials declared it unsafe a year ago and condemned it in February, criticizing its lack of repairs and ordering its urgent demolition.

But Invitation Homes — the largest home landlord in the nation, owning 44,000 homes — has yet to act, worrying neighbors that the worsening home's wreckage could lead to someone getting hurt.

"The home is wide open, and the fact that kids can get in there is scary," said neighbor Jim Codo, 72. "I worried about Halloween. I thought, 'Oh, God, here we go.' "

The home's squalor is a worrisome sign from an investor owning more than 2,500 other Tampa Bay houses, which pledged in promotions that their homes would be swiftly fixed and closely maintained.

Invitation Homes spokesman Andrew Gallina blamed the lack of repairs on ongoing negotiations with insurers on whether to rehabilitate or tear down the house. The home was fully insured, he added, but he could not say who the insurance carrier is.

"One would hope these things wouldn't take that much time, but it's a complicated decision," Gallina said. "Any time you have an insurance company involved, and an asset that is this expensive, there is a lot of back and forth."

Invitation paid $180,000 in late February 2013 to buy the foreclosed home, a five-bedroom with a private study and space for an indoor herb garden. The ranch house sits a short walk from a church and an aquatic center, on a school-bus route in suburban Brandon shaded by live oaks and Spanish moss.

The home had been renovated with a new pool pump and air-conditioning system, and Invitation quickly moved in renters. But in early April, about a month after purchase, an oak crashed down near the home's fireplace, plowing concrete-block walls into crumbs.

The tree was removed, the home was vacated and officials declared the home unsafe for human habitation. But Invitation representatives, after telling officials in May they were meeting with insurance adjusters, did little as the months passed and more pleas were sent, except cover up the damage.

"There's a big hole that's open, getting the weather inside, attracting mold … and we said they're going to have to replace all that. It's a danger for the kids," Hillsborough County code enforcement project manager Robin Caton said. "Obviously, what they did was put a tarp on it."

In February, 10 months after the tree fell, county officials condemned the "public nuisance," saying its extensive damage and "lack of corrective repairs … could pose a hazard to the community."

Officials ordered its demolition within 30 days, a deadline that passed in early March. The county code-enforcement board plans to review the case in May, Caton said, and could institute the home's first fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Invitation regularly dispatches crews to mow the lawn and check on the home, Gallina said. But he could not give a timeline for when the home would be demolished, or say what would happen next.

Neighbors said they're the ones having to clean up the mess. Before the lawn crews came, neighbors spent days fighting back the home's overgrown weeds. Some said they are on constant watch for vandals and are already dreading summer, when the ruins become a breeding ground for swarms of bugs.

"There's a swamp out back, and it's only going to get worse as it gets hotter, with that pool and all that disgust," said neighbor Rhonda Clark, 53. "When they could fix it, and don't, that's a shame."

The home's crumbling walls are still jagged with rusty rebar, and in the weeds sit a confetti of dirty trash and broken glass. Through the windows, light bulbs and exposed wires could be seen hanging from ragged ceiling cracks.

Across the street, neighbors pointed to two similar homes bought, fixed up and put on the market in the last 18 months. One house is now doted upon by a married couple of teachers. The other is under contract to sell.

Invitation Homes "could have done that. Then the tree fell," said Clark, a neighbor. "Then they said, 'Aw, screw it. Let the whole neighborhood go to hell.' "

Drew Harwell can be reachedat (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]

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