TAMPA — After citizen complaints, a city code enforcement officer visited William A. "Hoe" Brown's Seminole Heights property three times last year.
Each time, officer Bill Davidson spotted mobile homes Brown had placed behind his office.
Each time, Davidson said, he couldn't find Brown to learn what was going on. So he left.
Then in April, after another complaint, Davidson visited again. This time, he located Brown — a prominent Republican fundraiser and chairman of the Tampa Port Authority — and told him the mobile homes had to go.
"He knew it was wrong," Davidson said Thursday. "I told him he had to get rid of them, and I'm writing you up for this."
Brown had split the mobile homes into tiny apartments he illegally rented to the poor. Yet despite four visits by code enforcement over 11 months, recently released records show, the illegal rentals stayed until July 9 — the day after a Tampa Bay Times inquiry prompted Jake Slater, Davidson's boss, to visit the property himself.
Slater, who looked around with Brown's consent, called living conditions inside the mobile homes "deplorable" and "not fit for human habitation." He ordered them condemned.
Davidson defended his actions Thursday and said he could not have done anything differently when he visited Brown's property in 2012. Slater said he has launched an internal investigation into Davidson's actions and other issues surrounding the property, where Brown has rented units without permits for years.
"I don't know what happened there," said Slater, Tampa's director of neighborhood empowerment. "But I will find out. I will get to the bottom of this."
Brown had the units hauled away, refunded thousands of dollars in rent to his tenants and offered to help them relocate. On July 12, he resigned as chairman of the port's governing board and from several other public posts.
Since 1989, Brown has owned a small extended-stay motel at 7908 N Florida Ave. In 1996, through a trust, he bought a nearby residence at 106 W Stanley St. that he made his office. While Brown has the proper rental certificates for the motel, city officials say, he had never gotten permission to rent units on his office property.
Brown has rented a carriage house behind his office for years, he said through a spokeswoman. In 2012, he said, he subdivided his 1,700-square-foot office into five apartments, converted his garage into three apartments and added five mobile homes, each split into two units.
The first complaint last year about Brown's property sent Davidson there May 31, records show. Davidson could see mobile homes behind the office, he said, but he couldn't tell from the street if people were living there.
City zoning rules bar mobile homes for residential use outside of mobile home parks. If the units on Brown's property were actually trailers used for storage, they would not have violated zoning rules, said Thom Snelling, city director of planning and development.
To find out, Davidson would have had to inspect further. But he couldn't, he said, because Brown wasn't there. The city attorney's office bars code enforcement officers from walking onto private property without owner consent.
Could Davidson have looked up Brown's telephone phone number and called?
"Sure, if I had all kinds of time," Davidson said. "I cover an area from MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) all the way up to Fowler Avenue. It's hard to pinpoint on one when you're dealing with that much property."
In September, Davidson returned after a complaint that Brown was "utilizing commercial properties as a residential rooming house," according to a report. In October, Davidson visited again after a complaint that the "structure needs inspection . . . also, other units have been added onto house."
Both times, he said, he couldn't find Brown.
Davidson, like his boss Slater, is a former Tampa police officer. He has worked as a code enforcement officer since March 2004, records show. He earns $49,212 a year.
If not for Slater's July visit and decision to condemn the mobile homes, according to Slater, Brown would have had at least until a Sept. 4 appearance before the city's Code Enforcement Board to remove them — 15 months after Davidson first noticed them.
"I did what I could," Davidson said. "Eventually I was able to get on the property and do my job, and I did."
Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.