ST. PETERSBURG — With its granite countertops and modern kitchens and bathrooms, Saratoga Apartments is one of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority’s best properties.
A one-bedroom apartment rents for $500 a month at the affordable housing complex just east of Disston Heights, which is restricted to low-income families. For a single person, that would mean a salary of less than $34,000.
But for nine months in 2016, the occupant of apartment 54 was Tony Love, the housing authority’s chief executive.
He was making $140,000 a year.
The contract the Housing Authority awarded Love required the agency to pay his rent for the first six months following his relocation from Michigan. Soon after taking charge, Love decided it made more sense for him to live in a vacant agency apartment than for the agency to pay for a privately owned one.
He also billed the agency $3,000 for the cost of furnishing the second-floor one-bedroom apartment, including a new sofa, dining table, bed and two bar-stools from Big Lots.
The free accommodations did not end after six months. Love was still in the apartment in August 2016 when he asked the agency's board to approve a retroactive contract amendment extending his stay through the end of September.
His decision to live in housing designated as affordable violates federal guidelines set for Saratoga by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, its officials said.
"This is outrageous," said Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the St. Petersburg City Council member assigned as liaison to the housing agency. "How can he not afford his own apartment or his own home?"
Love, 63, said his decision saved the agency money and gave him insight into the conditions faced by residents.
"The agency was responsible for my living arrangement during that period of time no matter where I stayed," Love said. "I thought it was a yeoman thing for me to do to show the agency that I wasn't trying to gouge anyone."
Love said he needed the additional three months because he was frequently traveling to Michigan on weekends to be with his mother, who was terminally ill with cancer. She died May 9. He also had to help organize her funeral and said he had not had enough time to look for an apartment.
"I was going back and forth and realtors are not interested in finding you a rental property," he said.
He disputes that his use of the apartment denied a low-income family the chance to live in affordable accommodations.
The agency does not maintain a waiting list for Saratoga and there was a vacant unit when he was looking for a place to stay, he said. Michelle Ligon, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority, said that during Love's stay at Saratoga the 34-unit complex had vacancies in all but one month.
But vacant apartments are typically advertised on Craigslist and filled within a month, said Robin Adams, the agency's asset management officer.
Love's contract stated that the agency would pay "reasonable residential rental costs" but does not specify furniture. Love said because the apartment was unfurnished, it was a justifiable expense.
After he moved out of the apartment, Love said he put the furniture in storage at his own expense. Later, he said he reimbursed the agency about $360 for two items that he kept and donated the rest to a group that provides temporary shelter for women.
Despite repeated requests, Love declined to provide the name of the shelter.
Apartment rents at Saratoga are not subsidized by the federal government as they are in public housing or Section 8 properties. The rent paid by residents also covers trash, lawn care and pest control, according to the agency's website.
But with Love, the agency also paid his electric bill, which Ligon said was about $32 per month.
The Tampa Bay Times asked for copies of the bills on Feb. 14. They had not been provided as of Friday.
The Housing Authority purchased Saratoga in 2008 for about $3 million. The revenue for that purchase came from the sale of James Park, a public housing project that was built with federal funds.
HUD approved the purchase with a restriction that Saratoga only be used for households that earn 80 percent or less of Tampa Bay's median income, records show.
"The use in 2016 of a unit acquired with federal funds to house a person of high income did not comply with the guidance provided in 2008 to the housing authority for the use of the proceeds," said HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan. "We are looking into this and will be addressing it with the Board of Directors, which has fiduciary responsibility of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority."
The Housing Authority already is under scrutiny after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said last week he has “zero confidence’’ in Love's leadership and intends to remove five of the agency's seven board members for failing to provide oversight.
His announcement was in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found the agency's board in 2017 approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love without reviewing his evaluation. The $10,000 hike increased Love's yearly salary to $150,000 and was awarded despite written reports from senior staffers that Love routinely shouted, belittled staff and was causing the agency to lose key employees.
The agency was also criticized this year after officials told board member Terri Lipsey Scott she would have to pay up to $900 for copies of records she wanted to review. The agency reversed that decision after City Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes offered to pay the cost.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.