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Yards from a proposed new Rays ballpark: Housing so poor HUD will no longer subsidize it

TAMPA — The window blinds hang crooked and bent in the two-bedroom apartment that Jasmin DeLeon shares with her 3-year-old daughter Ivorianna.

Her air vents have mold and she wages an ongoing battle to keep roaches and mice out of her Tampa Park Apartments home.

"I bomb so much and they just come back," she said. "This is not somewhere to raise your kids."

The federal government has now come to the same conclusion after a recent inspection found other units with infestations, damaged doors and windows that don't open. It is the fourth time the privately-owned complex has failed an inspection in the past four years.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, this week sent letters to about 170 families informing them they will be moved out of the complex and into Section 8 housing beginning in August. It also informed the owners that it will no longer subsidize rents in more than half of the complex's roughly 370 apartments.

That could jeopardize its future. More than half of its occupants receive subsidies worth up to two-thirds of their rent. Now it will have to attract many more families willing and able to afford the full rent.

The loss of those tenants may also reignite speculation about the 23-acre property once touted as a potential site for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark. Nestled between Ybor City and downtown Tampa, it is barely a home run away from the site the Rays eventually chose, which could entice developers looking to build bars, restaurants and residential development to cater to fans.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Rays unveil their plans for an Ybor City ballpark

The complex is owned by a nonprofit group that is led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. Other officers of the nonprofit corporation include James Harrell, former president of the Local No. 1402 of the International Longshoremen's Union.

In a notice of termination sent to Andrews and Harrell, HUD officials wrote "the owner is required to maintain the project in a decent, safe and sanitary condition. Owner has failed to do so."

Malcolm Cunningham, an attorney who represents Tampa Park Apartments Inc., said maintenance crews have fixed and continue to fix problems found by HUD inspectors.

He described the agency's decision as payback for the non-profit suing HUD in 2014, saying it had mismanaged an escrow account set up to pay back construction loans on the property. The case, filed in federal court, is still ongoing.

"Obviously, HUD and Tampa Park have a dispute," Cunningham said. "This seems to be a continuation of an effort by HUD to retaliate against Tampa Park."

The complex was initially built as housing for longshoremen who worked at the nearby Port of Tampa, now called Port Tampa Bay. About 1,200 people live there.

A HUD inspection report in May scored Tampa Park Apartments at 42 out of 100 based on the number of health risks and other concerns discovered. A score of less than 60 is considered a failure. A score of less than 80 means a complex will be subject to annual inspections.

The June 2017 inspection found blocked emergency and fire exits, damaged roofs and peeling paint among other faults. Other issues like broken or cracked windows, damaged stoves and refrigerators, and exposed wiring were still outstanding from previous inspections. It led HUD to put the owners on notice that the could lose their subsidy.

RELATED: Make repairs or lose rent subsidy feds warn owners of Tampa Park

Among those facing relocation is Carmen Melendez, who only moved into her apartment three months ago after relocating from Pennsylvania. She lives on social security and pays $137 monthly rent.

"I just got here and now I've got to go somewhere else?" she said.

The other section of Tampa Park Apartments also failed an inspection in 2015 with a score of 58, HUD records show. Inspections in the past two years gave it a passing score.

As of now, there are no plans to relocate those residents.

That includes Diane Cooper, 53, who has lived at the complex for about 8 years and pays the full $485 rent from her disability check.

Roaches and rats infest many apartments, she said. Gang violence is also a worry. A stray bullet recently damaged the condenser of her neighbor's air-conditioning.

She feels it's not safe for her grandchildren to play outside when they visit.

"I would love to get out of here but I can't afford to move," she said.

HUD plans to offer families help with moving costs. It has contacted the Tampa Housing Authority to help with relocation.

Housing Authority staff plan to reach out to the owners for permission to meet with affected residents, said Chief Operating Officer Leroy Moore.

He said tenants should end up in better housing since a Section 8 voucher means they are no longer tied to one housing complex.

"I see a lot more upside for residents," Moore said. "The power of choice is huge for low-income families."

East Tampa activist Connie Burton isn't so sure.

HUD's decision could result in the loss of one of the few places where low-income families can live close to downtown, she said.

"If they lose half of their subsidy now it becomes a financial drain on the owner," she said. "That will force the hand of the owner to eventually sell."

Burton noted that several Tampa redevelopment projects have meant thousands of residents, mostly poor and black, have been moved farther away from downtown and from jobs.

"Most of those people, if they can find housing in the city, it won't be affordable," Burton said. "Where will all these people go?"

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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