OLDSMAR — At least 15 residents of a west Oldsmar apartment building were evicted Friday morning with no prior notice after Pinellas County sheriff's deputies said their landlord violated housing codes.
The residents, who said they first learned of the eviction about 9:30 a.m., had to pack their things in the morning heat without lights or air conditioning after a TECO employee cut off what deputies said was stolen electricity.
Many said they knew nothing about the allegations of power and water theft leveled against landlord Lawrence Ayers, who charged them $125 weekly to cover rent and utilities.
Electrical connections at 3616 Meriden Ave. were jerry-rigged to bypass meters, causing "imminent danger to the residents," said Safety Harbor Fire Marshal Richard Brock.
Though the eviction notices allowed residents 30 days to vacate, officials would not let people stay or delay the disconnection of power lines due to "personal safety concerns" like the potential for a fire, Brock said.
Residents sweated, hugged and cried while packing. A father made several trips on a bicycle with trash bags of clothes slung over his shoulder. A pregnant woman boxed belongings in the dark.
"It's not our fault. We're the victims, if anything," said Edward Whiteside, 22, who lived in the apartment for about a year with a roommate and his dog, Sasha. "It's evident why this is going on. You can't blame a tenant."
Ayers, 42, said the evictions were enforced by deputies who wanted "to get rid of people" because of a drive-by shooting near the home Thursday night. Whiteside and other residents said the evictions were retaliation for crimes in the area they called "Oldsmar's ghetto."
Ayers would not comment on allegations of stolen power.
"I'm not responsible for utilities," Ayers said. "Everyone's supposed to be responsible for their own utilities."
Deputies discovered the alleged electricity and water theft while investigating that shooting, said sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda, who gave no further details on how the violations were found.
Ayers has not been arrested and utility-theft charges have been referred to the State Attorney's Office. County forensics officials took fingerprint samples from the utility box.
A code enforcement officer listed $588 in citations for Ayers, including improper electrical hookup, improper hookup to sanitary facilities, failure to provide adequate dwelling and sleeping space and inoperable vehicle on site, county spokeswoman Mary Burrell said.
The officer said 15 people were allowed to split three two-bedroom apartments, a violation of the Minimum Housing Code. Ayers was also given a notice, but not cited, for operating a weekly rental facility outside of the correct zoning. It's unclear what the zoning is.
Ayers was arrested three times in the past five years for failing to appear in court on housing violation charges dealing with electricity and accumulation of trash, according to Pinellas jail records. He has entered into 11 mortgage foreclosure cases with seven different companies, court records show.
Joshua Davis, 19, had to take the day off work to pack his things. The 3,000-square-foot triplex provided housing he found affordable due to his minimum-wage income.
"There was no down payment," he said. "It was easy for somebody like me to move in."
Friends who tried to retrieve their things or help Davis move were forbidden from entering onto the property by deputies. Davis walked away from the building swinging his fists through the air.
"I wouldn't do this to somebody," Davis said. "I wouldn't feel right. I couldn't sleep at night."
Audra Chapman, 26, who stayed at a room there with her half brother and his pregnant girlfriend, said her neighbors were like family. On weekends, they would drink beer on the porch, listen to music and organize barbecues. On Thursday, they helped each other move and said their good-byes.
"There's no electricity. That's why we're all sweating so much. I can't even see in the closet to find what else is left," she said, tears dribbling down her cheeks. "It's embarrassing, you know."
Chapman, like many of her neighbors, had no future housing plans except to stay with friends. Residents who contacted the American Red Cross were told they would have to find housing without the organization's help.
"When it's a situation such as with a landlord, if he has insurance on that building, he's required to take care of his tenants," said Red Cross spokeswoman Janet McGuire. "If the city decides to open a shelter to put these people in, we'll be more than glad to assist."
By the time Shawn Aparo had tied his friend's trunk down with speaker wire and left the property, he had yet to hear from housing officials.
"I'm all ready to go. I just don't have nowhere to go," said Aparo, 24. "I'm stuck. Ricky's stuck. Bob's stuck. Half of us are homeless now."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.