Hillsborough County has taken the first step toward cleaning up its troubled housing program. The staff and policy changes at the Homeless Recovery agency should hold the program more accountable and create better housing options for the poor. The next step is for county officials to bring Hillsborough's three cities and the private sector together on a long-range plan for tackling chronic homelessness.
County Administrator Mike Merrill showed the right sense of urgency by replacing two senior managers at the agency and by making sweeping changes in how the county moves the needy into temporary housing. The moves came after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the former Tampa Port Authority chairman, William "Hoe" Brown, had been paid more than $600,000 by the program since 1998. Brown resigned as port chairman in July after the Times reported on squalid conditions at some of his rental units. But this was hardly an isolated problem; Merrill announced last week that about 200 people receiving publicly subsidized housing assistance through the county were living in unacceptable conditions.
By moving forcefully, Merrill has brought new direction to the housing agency and put his own reform plan on the public radar. The new requirement that rental units be inspected should ensure better living conditions for those in the program and scare away slumlords who want an easy buck from the government. The move should give clients the confidence and leverage they deserve in dealing with the usual array of landlord-tenant issues. And regular contact between the agency and its providers should help the county stay on top of any problems.
County commissioners, though, need to make housing a higher priority. In Hillsborough, the county is largely responsible for dealing with homelessness (even in the urban areas), but it has not taken up the issue in a far-reaching way since the failed effort years ago to build a tent city. The county should reach out to public and private partners and craft a strategy for getting the chronically homeless off the streets. Keeping a watch on landlords in the housing program is fine, but it does little to address the number of homeless people coming into the system. Merrill's reforms create a new standard for clients served by the housing office. But the larger problem the county needs to address is why so many need temporary housing in the first place.