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Tampa announces reforms to Crime-Free housing program

After defending the program, Mayor Jane Castor agrees to limit when landlords are notified of tenant arrests.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on Saturday announced reforms to a Tampa Police Department program that reported the arrest of tenants to landlords and encouraged them to evict. It comes after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that entire families lost their homes even in cases when charges were dropped.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor on Saturday announced reforms to a Tampa Police Department program that reported the arrest of tenants to landlords and encouraged them to evict. It comes after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that entire families lost their homes even in cases when charges were dropped. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 18

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor announced Saturday that the city will reform its Crime-Free housing program. The move comes four days after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed how officers encouraged landlords to evict tenants based on arrests, including some where charges were later dropped. The investigation was published online Wednesday at Tampabay.com.

The program was aimed at stamping out drug and gang crime in apartment complexes. But the Times investigation found that police officers were reporting tenants to their landlords after arrests for misdemeanor crimes, the arrest of juveniles and arrests that happened elsewhere in the city.

Related: Tampa police called for hundreds to be evicted. Entire families lost their homes.

The report also revealed that roughly 90 percent of the 1,100 people flagged by the program were Black tenants.

Under the announced changes, the city will inform landlords only about “certain serious drug and violent felonies.” A police captain must sign off on notices sent, and landlords will be notified only about arrests that happen on their properties.

Castor, who had defended the program launched by the police department when she was chief, agreed to the changes after meeting Friday with City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes and state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa. Hart and a coalition of civil rights groups had called on Castor to scrap the program.

Related: Civil rights groups call for halt to Tampa police Crime-Free housing program

“No Tampa resident should have to live where they fear to let their kids play outside, and this voluntary program has improved the safety and quality of life for tens of thousands of people,” Castor said in a statement. “I really appreciate the leadership and collaboration from Chairman Gudes and Rep. Hart to help us improve and continue this program that is a benefit to our entire community.”

Gudes, whose East Tampa district includes many of the apartment complexes enrolled in the program, said the changes were needed and that his office will monitor how the program is run.

“Revising this program was paramount, and I’m glad that we were able to make the necessary adjustments so that we are not arbitrarily compounding on the affordable housing crisis we currently have in this City,” he said.

But the changes have not satisfied all of the program’s critics.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said the program could still violate a renter’s civil rights because it can result in an eviction based solely on an arrest.

“This program needs to be stopped,” she said. “You’re treating housing as though it’s a privilege.”

Lewis said she recognizes the need for communities to be safe, but said denying people housing is not the way to achieve that. Her group is planning a press conference next week to highlight concerns about the program.

“Because somebody commits a crime, you put the whole family out?” she asked. “Now, where does that family go?”

Her group, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and others sent a letter to Castor and Tampa City Council members after the Times story published, calling for the crime initiative to be scrapped.

Tampa police launched the program in 2013. Officers identified apartment complexes and invited landlords to join.

Landlords were encouraged to make tenants sign a lease addendum stating they could be evicted if they were involved in criminal activity. Police sent hundreds of notices that told landlords they were “required to take immediate action through notice to cure, notice to vacate or eviction” of arrested tenants.

Officers recorded more than 300 tenants as “evicted” on a police database, although it’s unclear if they were evicted, forced out of their homes by a notice to vacate or simply moved away.

Saturday’s announced changes do not address criticisms that the program has a disproportionate impact on Black renters, nor that evictions could happen based on arrests that do not end in convictions.

At its peak, about 100 apartment complexes were enrolled in the program. Three-quarters of them were in neighborhoods where U.S. Census block data shows the majority of residents are Black and Hispanic.

Police have operated the program less aggressively since 2017, when the Times began requesting copies of letters sent to landlords. After that, the department sent fewer letters to landlords and removed wording from notices that instructed landlords to take action.

Police officials this year said the number of apartment complexes taking part has dwindled to 42.