ST. PETERSBURG — A federal agency has cited the St. Petersburg Housing Authority for letting chief executive Tony Love live rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this week sent a notice of violation stating that Love's 2016 stay at the Saratoga Apartments breached federal rules that allow only low-income residents to live in the 34-unit complex just east of Disston Heights.
The letter sent to the Housing Authority's governing board also reminded members of their oversight duties and recommends they receive additional training.
"Under no circumstances should Mr. Love have been permitted to reside at Saratoga Apartments," wrote Uche A. Oluku, an Office of Public Housing director. "Henceforth, in light of this and various other recent issues, the (Office of Public Housing-Miami) will closely monitor the affairs of the Authority."
Love opted to stay at the apartment when his initial employment contract required the authority to pay his rent for six months after his relocation from Michigan. That would save the authority from paying rent on a privately owned apartment, he said. However, he ended up staying at Saratoga for nine months, through September 2016.
At a Housing Authority board meeting Thursday, Love blamed former senior staff who, he said, failed to let him know that the apartment complex was purchased using federal dollars. The approval in 2008 came with the condition that the low-rent complex only be used for households that earn 80 percent or less of Tampa Bay's median income.
In 2016, that was about $33,000 for a single person. At that time Love lived there, he was earning $140,000.
"I got bad information from people who should have known," Love said. "I'm not trying to throw people under the bus."
A Tampa Bay Times investigation also found that the Housing Authority paid $3,000 to furnish the apartment and paid Love's electric bills throughout his stay, which totaled about $625.
Love previously said that the purchase of furniture was a valid expense as part of his relocation package although his contract states only that the authority will pay "reasonable rent." He said he needed the additional three months because his mother was dying from cancer. She died May 2016.
The HUD letter makes no mention of the furniture or electricity costs but it sets a 30-day deadline for the authority to provide evidence that no federal funds were used to pay for Love's stay at Saratoga.
That request stems from the authority's decision to transfer $14,350 from a central account to one it uses to maintain Saratoga. The transaction, which officials said was to cover Love's rent, was not made until Feb. 28 — more than two years after Love moved out of the apartment.
Housing Authority board members on Thursday expressed frustration at the situation but did not criticize Love. Though the CEO is responding to the notice of violation, board members voted to draft their own response to the federal agency.
Basha Jordan, who Mayor Rick Kriseman recently decided against reappointing to a second term, said the authority's attorneys should have advised Love on whether his use of the apartment was legal.
"I was not even made aware of what was going on as far as Saratoga and having housing there until three weeks ago," he said.
Board Chairman Harry Harvey likened Love's stay to other housing leaders who lived in public housing to get a glimpse of what life is like for the people they serve. Recently, Lynne Patton, who heads the New York and New Jersey region of HUD, lived for a month in a New York project plagued by leaks and suspected mold on the kitchen and bathroom ceilings, according to a report by WNBC.
Saratoga is one of the authority's better complexes. Units have granite countertops and modern kitchens and bathrooms.
While not chastising board members, the HUD notice suggested that board members need to step up their oversight, including a request that they make "concerted efforts" to take more training so they understand the different housing programs that the authority administers.
"As fiduciaries of the authority’s resources, each board member has the basic responsibility of understanding the authority’s mission and programs," it states.
Love said he plans to tell HUD that board members as recently as March 8 underwent a day of training.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.