TARPON SPRINGS — The men in black vests began showing up to Glen’s Eureka apartments in mid-September — soon after the nine-unit building sold to a new owner, local attorney George Andriotis.
They hassled residents and asked them when they were moving out, tenants say. They left notices on some doors, warning them to leave by Oct. 8 or have the locks changed. Residents say they have nowhere else to go during the pandemic. Many have health issues.
“They have been pressing us to leave — for everybody to leave,” said Tom Bailey, who has lived at the complex for nine years.
Andriotis hired a local property management company, Tarapani Banther & Associates, to work with tenants while he prepared to move forward with renovations on the blighted property. Tarapani Banther is the name listed on the notices that were delivered to some units.
The company is named after the two government officials — one current and one former — who run it. Townsend Tarapani is a Tarpon Springs Commissioner, and David Banther was previously the city’s vice mayor.
These notices, and the visits from Tarapani Banther representatives, have created a spiral of confusion among residents about how and why they may be kicked out.
“They don’t know their rights,” said local real estate agent Jewel DeFiores, about the tenants. DeFiores said she’s been following the situation at the complex, and that many residents don’t have written leases and are being “bullied.”
The Tarpon Springs leaders should be held to a higher standard, she said.
“I think the owner of this place... would do right by our town by facilitating a smooth transition into better housing,” she said. “It disturbs me because George Andriotis is a licensed lawyer and Tarapani is a licensed real estate agent — I want them to straighten up and fly right.”
Andriotis, Tarapani and Banther say they are not not trying to kick out anyone in good standing during a pandemic.
“We are not in the business of putting people out on the streets,” said Andriotis, who became the owner on Sept. 2. “It’s not the way I was raised and not how I want to operate.”
The apartment complex is notorious in the city. It’s the site of the 2014 shooting of Tarpon Springs Police Officer Charlie Kondek by a former felon who encountered Kondek as the officer was investigating a noise complaint. Since then, it has been a constant source of tension for neighbors. Andriotis said the building needs significant work to be brought up to code.
Its troubled history was one of the reasons Andriotis decided to buy the property, he said. He enjoys restoring buildings in neighborhoods where he has spent all his life. He owns nine other properties in Tarpon Springs, he said.
“This is a very community-driven place and a lot of people are happy to see this building turn from — forget eyesore, it was a dangerous place,” Andriotis said.
He plans to renovate the building and convert the nine one-bedroom units to a mixture of six one- and two-bedroom apartments. The rents will rise from $550-$650 to $750-$950 — still below market rate, he said.
But in order to complete these renovations, he needs empty units.
The rust-colored building at 199 Grand Blvd. is a last stop for people who have nowhere else to go.
Inside, pipes leak and the walls have holes. The power sometimes goes out and tenants said they are used to rats and mold. But many of those who live here struggle with chronic illness, mental health conditions or addiction, and just feel lucky to have a home at all.
Bailey said he and his fiancée, who has stage 3 cerebral palsy, were homeless on and off for years. When they first came to Tarpon Springs, they slept in the woods behind a graveyard for four months, he said. A church friend eventually connected them with Glen’s Eureka apartments, where the landlord was flexible. She offered to let him pay month to month. There was no paperwork and he didn’t ask questions.
The couple pays $650 a month for their one-bedroom efficiency and it has been a stable place to call home ever since. Bailey, 59, picks up landscaping jobs to supplement his monthly Social Security checks. And his fiancée, Marjorie Colleen Davis, has a business making handmade greeting cards.
“We would like to stay here,” he said. “But there are guys coming here saying: ‘when are you going to move? When are you going to move? How long will that take?’”
After a Tampa Bay Times reporter spoke with Andriotis, Bailey said representatives from Tarapani Banther & Associates gave him a list of phone numbers of Pinellas County housing resources and a $10 Publix gift card. He called a few of the numbers but quickly grew frustrated — all of them had years-long waiting lists for low-income housing options.
Andriotis said residents who are paying rent could be moved into other apartments in the complex while renovations take place. Once the renovations are completed, they could apply to stay. He said he has no plans to start eviction proceedings this year.
“I am not here to kick out people who have been there for years,” Andriotis said “Tom (Bailey) who pays, he has chosen to go find another place.”
But Bailey said he was never offered the option to stay. Andriotis said Bailey never asked.
Andriotis said four units in the complex have not paid rent in months or years. The previous owner did not have leases or keep documentation for any of them, he said.
Those are the units that received notices on their doors demanding that they vacate by Oct. 8 and that locks on the door will be changed, he said.
But the notices raised legal questions.
They warn residents that “any personal belonigings (sic) left will be moved to the street,” but the law says tenants can’t be removed until the landlord files for eviction in court and a sheriff’s deputy delivers a document called a writ of possession. It’s also unclear whether the notices adhere to the proper legal timeline.
Housing lawyers who spoke with the Times said 15-day notices to vacate must be delivered at least 15 days before the end of the monthly period when the rent is due — generally, on the first of the month. The notices were delivered on Sept. 23. Tarapani said the notice was legal because not all residents are on the same payment schedule.
One of the lawyers, Natalie Maxwell, the director of advocacy and litigation at Three Rivers Legal Services, which provides free legal help to poor Floridians, also said that threatening to move tenants' belongings to the street is not language that is typically included in such notices.
She added that a warning like that is “inaccurate” and could be considered a threat under Florida’s landlord-tenant law.
“If the renter doesn’t vacate voluntarily at the end of the term, the landlord has to go to court and file for eviction,” she said. “My suggestion (to the tenants) would be they probably need to get themselves a lawyer.”
Andriotis said these rules do not apply because those units aren’t occupied by regular residents - rather, they’re occupied by a “network of homeless people” who have not responded to his efforts to reach them since he took ownership, he said.
The four units have no running water or electricity, Andriotis said, which is a liability.
“If something happens in one of those apartments who do you think gets sued? It’s going to be me,” he said. “I need to know who is in there and what is going on.”
Florida law requiring landlords to go to court doesn’t apply in situations with unknown squatters where there is no rental agreement, said Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit at Bay Area Legal Services, which offers free legal services to low-income tenants.
But Jackie Merrick, who has been living there almost three years, said she also received the notice. She said her power and water are working and she paid rent until she got the notice, and provided a September rent receipt to the Times. Other residents said no one living there is “squatting." Most residents have been there for years.
“Everybody that is here has been here. No one is squatting," she said. “We are trying to find a place (to go) but not having any luck so far.”
Tarapani said that if there is someone living there, the company can’t legally kick out residents on Oct. 8. Despite the language in the notice, Tarapani called it “a voluntary thing.”
“We can’t change locks if somebody is still inhabiting the units,” he said in an interview with a Tampa Bay Times reporter. “If they have vacated of their own will, then we would move things to the street after they’ve had the chance to move their belongings, and remove the locks after they have given us repossession.”
He also said employees from his office have never harassed residents.
In addition to these parameters for evictions under state law, the federal government has also instituted a nationwide moratorium on evictions through an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — though it’s unclear if that would apply in this case. In order for tenants to be protected, they must fill out and submit a declaration form to their landlords, stating they’ve experienced a “substantial loss of household income,” among other qualifications.
Cheryl Thompson lives across the street from the apartment complex and said she has watched the panic among her neighbors with growing alarm. She set up a chalkboard sign in her yard, calling attention to the local leaders' actions: “ILLEGAL EVICTION HONORS NO ONE” it read.
“Those are human beings that need a place to go and they are getting displaced and are becoming the community’s problem,” she said. “Powerful people have set this up and they should be taking responsibility — not passing the buck.”
Resident Chris Buchan said that the news of the sale came so fast, he and his wife, Gina Carcione, haven’t had any time to figure out their next step.
On a recent afternoon, Buchan helped Carcione administer a Lovenox shot, used to prevent blood clots. Carcione is recovering from a brain surgery in February, which left her bedridden for months, and required frequent trips to the hospital.
Buchan said he hoped Andriotis would help them find a new place. That hasn’t happened yet.
“We are stuck in a spot and don’t have any funds to pick up and go,” he said. “I don’t know how they can do this in the middle of the pandemic.”
Times staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.