TAMPA — James Flanning thought he’d outgrown his childhood asthma. But after he moved into Timberfalls apartments five months ago, he started waking at night with his lungs clenched like fists.
When that happens, he walks to his balcony to draw small breaths of midnight air. Lately, Flanning, 37, has been using an inhaler for the first time as an adult.
In his son’s room, the carpet peels back easily to reveal streaky patches that smell of mildew. The bathroom air vent is crusted with splotches of mold, and the paint bubbles in places where the wall crumbles like cake. On a recent afternoon, a rat skittered onto his 1-year-old daughter’s arm while she munched breakfast on the living room floor, his wife said.
The issues in his family’s unit are not isolated. Last week, a neighboring tenant said she caught her ninth rat this year, squirming on a sticky trap in the kitchen. A few doors away, another neighbor’s closet flooded — for the fourth time, she said.
The Miami company that leases out these apartments, Tzadik Management, boasts a billion-dollar portfolio of residential complexes nationally, including at least 12 in Hillsborough County. Several in Hillsborough have been repeatedly cited by code enforcement.
Federal records show Tzadik Properties, which lists the same address as Tzadik Management, recently received between $2 million and $5 million as an emergency loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, created to help companies avert layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. The government doesn’t disclose specific loan amounts, only ranges.
But while Tzadik got a bailout from the government, some of its residents could soon find themselves homeless. The company is threatening dozens of tenants with eviction, even though many said they lost their jobs to the coronavirus.
Tzadik has filed more evictions during the pandemic than any other company in Florida, according to a July analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
“They should be a little more lenient if they got that loan,” said Anastasia Lee, who also lives in Timberfalls and is facing eviction. “That’s a lot of money.”
In an emailed statement, Tzadik Management defended its eviction filings. It said that it dismissed any cases that fell under a federal moratorium on evictions, part of Congress’s pandemic relief package. The company did not directly respond to 17 detailed questions sent by email, and instead provided two statements that addressed some questions but ignored others related to living conditions and its federal loan.
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“Tzadik is, and has been, operating in compliance with all applicable laws, and will continue to keep the safety and well-being of its staff and tenants as its priority,” the company said, in part. “Employees are on-site completing work orders as they come in and working with tenants during the pandemic.”
Flanning begged to differ, saying his family had moved into the unit knowing about some of its issues, but the landlord had promised to fix them. Months later, the problems have only worsened.
The landlord company doesn’t care “at all,” he said. Despite the fact that he lost his construction job and only recently was re-employed, he and his wife have been scraping together money to stay in motels, because they’re concerned about the health of their kids. At this point, that’s much more important than trying to get caught up on rent.
"I struggle right now," he said. "Real deal struggle."
Since Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state moratorium on evictions and foreclosures April 2, the number of filings in Tampa Bay area courts have been down compared to last year, a signal that many landlords could be waiting for the freeze to expire.
Not Tzadik Management. It has filed more than 70 evictions in Hillsborough County alone since that moratorium took effect. Nearly all cited nonpayment of rent.
Then the company dismissed roughly half of its eviction filings, a move that Tzadik said was designed to comply with the federal eviction moratorium enacted in late March. The CARES Act prohibited landlords in certain types of properties from initiating evictions based on nonpayment of rent.
But starting June 1, while that moratorium was still in effect, the company began delivering notices to some of the same tenants whom they had tried to evict for failing to pay, court documents show. Because those people were renting month-to-month, the landlord can end their tenancies if they give 15 days to vacate. Tzadik then used the termination as the reason for the evictions.
“As we all adjust to new policies and procedures that have been put in place to protect Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tzadik Management is also adjusting to new and evolving laws and deadlines,” the company said. It declined to answer emailed follow-up questions about the evictions, saying: “The company is compliant with all applicable laws and will not be issuing additional statements.”
Because of the eviction freeze imposed by DeSantis, the cases that weren’t dismissed haven’t been finalized. But many of Tzadik’s Hillsborough cases are teed up for a judge’s order when the moratorium is lifted. It currently extends through August.
Lee, Flanning's neighbor at Timberfalls, said she lost her temporary job with a catering company because of the coronavirus. The extra money she makes braiding hair also dropped off.
Now, Lee, 36, who lives in the apartment with her three kids, is looking for another job and hopes she can save enough to move before she's evicted, since the conditions in her apartment aren't improving anyway.
Even though her closet carpet was soaked, she believes from a leaking AC unit, she couldn't move her clothes to the bedroom's other closet — because she's afraid to open it. For weeks, the distinct smell of a dead animal has been seeping through the walls.
"You put in a maintenance order, and they ignore it," she said. "They don't do anything for these apartments."
Another tenant of Tzadik's, Robert Murray, who's also facing eviction, lives in a different Tampa complex called Columbia Oaks.
Murray, 30, who according to court documents was a delivery driver for the Hillsborough school district but has been out of work, said an employee of the landlord knocks on his door every week asking for rent. He applied for unemployment but said the checks have been arriving irregularly.
"They don't care what's going on, they just care about that dollar," Murray said. "They ain't giving you any solutions."
Although Murray and his girlfriend, Erial Wilson, said they would like to stay in their apartment, where they live with Murray's father, they've also had their share of unaddressed maintenance issues.
Since they moved in two years ago, they noticed decay in their second-story balcony. Then in November, Wilson's leg went through the wood, injuring her hip and leg, she said.
In a court filing, Murray said it took three months after the incident for maintenance to address the porch, “and it’s still not fully fixed.”
In Georgia, Tzadik got into legal trouble in a case involving rigid rent collection.
On July 29, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it was charging Tzadik Management Group and its Georgia portfolio company with discrimination for refusing to waive $100 monthly late fees for a tenant who paid rent with disability benefits, which arrived late in the month.
Tzadik said it decided not to renew the tenant’s lease because of his late payments, as well as a “confrontation he instigated at the leasing office.”
“The company consistently works with its tenants in financial distress to create payment plans, or other proactive measures, to keep its residents in good standing,” Tzadik Management wrote in an email. “That being said, the company does not provide preferential treatment to any of its tenants and adheres to lease and community rules to ensure all residents are held to the same baseline of standards.”
Tzadik received its federal loan to retain 204 employees, according to federal data. Under the program, the loan will be forgivable if the company uses the majority of it for payroll, with allowances for companies’ rent, utilities or interest on mortgages. (The Tampa Bay Times and related companies received an $8.5 million loan.)
The pandemic didn’t prohibit Tzadik from expanding. On July 16, Tzadik announced it had acquired JM Real Estate, a commercial property management, leasing and sales company in Brevard County.
According to its website, Tzadik has managed 19,000 residential rental units and 15 million square feet of commercial real estate in more than 20 states.
An online biography of Tzadik Management CEO Adam M. Hendry describes him as "a charismatic and visionary leader with a bias for action." One of his primary focuses, it continues, is "developing and growing ... relationships with tenants that cause them to be raving fans."
A Times reporter left a voicemail on Hendry’s phone, but he referred questions to the public relations firm that issued statements over email.
Martel Nealey, 42, who lives at Tzadik Oaks Apartments in Tampa and is facing eviction, said he was disappointed to hear about the company receiving financial assistance that has not been available to him. He lost his warehouse job at Raymond James Stadium and submitted records in court showing he applied for unemployment but said he did not receive it.
“If I received unemployment, I would’ve given them their money, but I can’t give what I don’t have,” Nealey said. “They’re pressing everybody, trying to get them out, and they got a loan? That’s crazy.”
Across Tzadik's several properties, the complaints raised by tenants follow similar patterns.
Properties managed by the company were cited for more than 50 violations over several years by code enforcement. Problems included mold, plumbing leaks, severe water damage, non-working air conditioning and pest infestations, including cockroaches and bed bugs, county records show. In many instances, inspectors returned after the citation to find the issues resolved.
In one case in 2018, Tzadik accumulated $48,250 in fines and fees after it took nearly seven months to fix all its violations. The inspector had found “a black organic substance” growing in the bathroom vent, cabinets and doors falling off hinges, a leaking fridge and a peeling bathtub.
On several occasions, the tenants who filed the complaints said they had tried asking maintenance to fix the problems.
"She reported the issues when she originally moved in back in January but nothing has been repaired," one complaint reads. "Landlord is aware of the issues but is not addressing them," says another. In a complaint where an investigator found mold growing on the walls, the tenant said the landlord was only willing to paint over it.
Tzadik did not respond to several questions sent by email about its tenants’ hazardous living conditions, code violations or the complaints about poor maintenance service.
In court documents filed by tenants facing eviction, they allege similar inaction.
One tenant who's being evicted from a Temple Terrace complex called Heritage Cove said Tzadik Management can't evict her — because she already left. Lori Neal's husband had a stroke Feb. 10 that required him to use a wheelchair, yet despite calling seven times over two months, a ramp was not installed to the entrance of their apartment, she said.
"On April 17, 2020, there was still no ramp nor any indication that one would be built," the court document reads. "Plaintiff left Defendant with no choice but to find a wheelchair accessible home for her husband."
Back in Timberfalls, Flanning and his family came home after the stint in a motel and returned to their usual routine of battling their apartment: laying poison traps for the rats, using an inhaler for the air, and having to order take-out because the refrigerator doesn’t keep anything cold.
Another constant task is dumping a large bin of brown foamy water over their balcony. Because the pipe under their kitchen sink doesn't fit properly, it blocks the drain, he said. So the dirty water flows into the bin instead.
Flanning recently got a job at a Checkers restaurant and is hoping to save money, so the family can move and replace furniture that might be unsafe because of the mold. The rent for their two-bedroom unit is $950, with a $100 fee if they’re more than five days late, according to the eviction paperwork filed against them.
He sent his 11-year-old son to live with a cousin, because he, too, is having trouble breathing.
But Flanning worries about his youngest daughters, who are 1 and 2 years old.
“I’ve got my two babies in there,” he said.
Times staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.
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