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New owners turning around troubled Tampa apartments

TAMPA — In the months leading up to the murder of 21-year-old Derek Anderson, the Johnson & Kenneth Court Apartments saw police often.

Neighbors reported large groups fighting on the basketball court and loud music coming from the courtyard. Cars vanished. So did valuables.

Then, on June 30, TV cameras brought the complex into people's living rooms, as SWAT teams scoured all 200 units, searching for a man thought to have killed two police officers.

Behind the scenes, a different sort of crackdown was unfolding. Johnson & Kenneth Court Apartments were about to be sold to buyers who planned to spend $1 million on security to protect their investment.

Even as the tanks rolled up and down 43rd Street, employees of the new ownership moved into the front office. Off-duty police patrols followed, along with plans for a perimeter wall, access gate, guardhouse, resident ID cards, resident parking permits and 63 surveillance cameras.

The $8.8 million purchase closed on July 2.

Owners promise even more improvements, including dependable sewer lines, new appliances and a clubhouse.

Southport Financial executive Peter Leach said nothing in Johnson & Kenneth Court's past — not crime, nor the desperate need for renovation — could have killed the deal.

"It was just a symptom of what we knew we were getting into," Leach said.

• • •

Early on, the complex brought promise.

Doshia Hart, who has lived in the same unit for 34 years, was newly divorced when she moved into Johnson Court with her youngest daughter in 1976.

Johnson Court and neighboring Kenneth Court had opened up a few years earlier along 43rd Street, north of Hillsborough Avenue. Back then, most tenants had jobs. Hart worked in an office.

Both complexes remain separate properties. They have been owned by the same groups for years but not even the parking lots are connected.

Hart loved the convenience of being so close to Hillsborough Avenue.

"The grocery store was right there, and you could walk to the old East Lake Mall," recalled Hart, 69.

She made friends. Hart would go to neighbors' apartments to play cards and talk.

"The people around were nice," she said.

Then the first of the Section 8 renters came. Hart wasn't a fan of the kind of women drawn to government-subsidized housing.

With them came boyfriends and other young people.

Across the street, Eddie Lee noticed it, too. He'd been around since the late 1960s, when a neighboring landowner sold out to the apartment builders. Back then, there were only two houses on his block of Deleuil Avenue.

"It brought problems that's for sure," said Lee, 76, a retired county mechanic. "Some days you couldn't even turn up the block because of the way the cars were packed over here blocking the street."

Loud music blared from car stereos and home sound systems. Hart stopped trying to get to know her neighbors. Crime kept her closer to her front door, though she still liked to set up a chair outside and watch.

The people, she notices, come from other neighborhoods.

"They come from all over. They come from West Tampa to hang out here. I say to them sometimes, 'You must really love Johnson to come all the way over here,' " Hart said, laughing.

Lee, Hart and other residents agree: It's the outsiders who make the trouble.

• • •

On May 18, there were gunshots. Derek Anderson, 21, was returning to his apartment with a bag of freshly washed laundry, when someone tried to rob him and shot him dead.

Anderson was a fixture around the neighborhood, known as the "kid in the backpack." He was a young father who had a job interview that day.

Police later charged Dontae Morris, who had done prison time for selling cocaine. He didn't live in the complex but was rumored to hang out there.

The basketball court in the middle of the property drew crowds of 40 to 50 people at a time, according to police reports. Neighbors would phone cops about fights and racket coming from the common areas.

Outsiders come in and pick fights with each other, said Omar Anchico Jr., 22, who lives there.

Sometimes, people come onto the property to sell drugs or steal cars, residents said.

In the eight months leading up to the sale of the apartments, residents reported 12 burglaries, eight stolen cars, four robberies, four reports of shots and three auto burglaries.

In March, one resident came home to an apartment stripped of two flat-screen TVs, an Xbox and his very last Dunkin Donut.

Police were in the complex 98 times during the month of Anderson's murder.

Given all that, residents were both annoyed and relieved early this month when the new owners of Johnson & Kenneth Court hired off-duty police officers to check out anyone who didn't appear to belong there.

Anchico summed up the conflicting sentiments.

"It's good that they're here because I got a kid and there needs to be someplace safe," he said.

But his child's mother rents their apartment. Anchico's name isn't on the lease. When he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, police questioned him.

It was the new management's policy, they said, that all hallways and breezeways be clear and that guests be accompanied by a leaseholder.

"If she's not right there with you, hand in hand, I'm going to have to trespass you off the property," the officer warned.

Anchico understood, but that didn't mean he was happy.

After three weeks, the police-backed no-loitering policy has cleared the basketball court and breezeways.

The measures make Johnson & Kenneth Court feel like a maximum-security prison, said resident Detrick Lucas, 20. "They come around every 10 minutes and they approach you," he said.

Management said the policy isn't new, just newly enforced.

• • •

Beneath the tension is resentment from the June 30 police manhunt for Dontae Morris.

Police went door to door, turning residents out of their own apartments. Some say they were kept out for hours.

Anchico couldn't get through the police line to come home. He slept on a cousin's couch.

Even retiree Hart said she saw officers with guns pointed when she answered her door that day.

"They said, 'Ma'am, you have to come out. We have to search your apartment.' I told them the only person in my apartment was me," Hart explained.

Sherell Mitchell, 24, stood outside the gates as teams of officers went door to door. "We all feel like prisoners, like we are being held hostage," she said.

• • •

Three weeks ago, new property manager Latoria Boyd walked around Johnson & Kenneth Court to survey the land.

She passed by the empty playground and took it all in.

When she got back to the office, a veteran employee told her, "At least there were no condoms," Boyd said.

She remained optimistic about plans to turn the old complex into a new community.

Southport Financial has worked in public housing before, said Leach, the executive with the company. It's the developer behind City Place, a senior housing complex in St. Petersburg.

He and his associates made the offer on the 200-unit Tampa complex seven months ago, according to the former management.

The Tampa City Council unanimously approved plans Thursday for a clubhouse that will include a swimming pool, library and computer room.

Low-income tax credit dollars from a partnership out of Raymond James Financial will bring the weathered buildings into the 21st century, Leach said.

"You won't even know it's low-income," Boyd said.

The playground will be replaced by play areas on both sides of the complex, so children don't have to cross the street.

Apartments will be renovated 12 to 15 at a time, getting new cabinets, floors, walls and appliances, Boyd said. Residents will be relocated while work is done.

"We're not moving everyone out during this process," she said.

The project should be completed by spring, Leach said.

Next, they'll change the name to Silver Oaks Apartments.

No evictions are planned. But the outward improvements are supposed to spur inner ones.

"If you have a good place for people to live," Leach said, "good people will live there."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin and staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

New owners turning around troubled Tampa apartments 07/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 25, 2010 9:15am]
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