TAMPA — For five minutes, Ruth Levin felt like she’d won the lottery.
The city of Tampa had chosen her for a bold, new rental aid program. It would pay $600 of her rent each month, for nearly a year, to help cover rising costs at Bay Colony Apartments.
Tampa city staff simply needed the building’s manager to approve the aid, the Aug. 1 email said.
The 63-year-old was elated.
Then her phone rang. Levin’s property manager told her the building wouldn’t take the payments, according to an email Levin sent the city later that day.
“I’m so confused,” said Levin, who has lived in the apartment near Bayshore Boulevard for three years. “I’d felt relieved because it was gonna be a really, really, really bad struggle to make the rent. We could move somewhere else, but there isn’t anything — especially in Tampa — that’s any better.”
Levin’s good fortune was about to be squandered because of where she lived. In Florida, landlords of private properties generally don’t have to accept rent money from assistance programs, even if their tenants qualify for them. That nuance comes at a high cost for some Tampa residents who qualified for the city’s program.
Of the 355 people who qualified for the aid, about 35 — or roughly 10% — couldn’t use it because their landlords refused the money, according to a city spokesperson.
“You can’t force a payment method on a property owner,” said Robin Stover, a housing attorney at Gulfcoast Legal Services.
Management at Levin’s complex — Bay Colony Apartments — declined multiple emailed and in-person requests to comment.
Help amid rising rent
Earlier this year, the city of Tampa launched a new initiative to help residents stay afloat amid rising rental costs.
Known as the rental and move-in assistance program, it was so popular that the city paused it within 10 days after receiving nearly 1,000 applicants from all over the country. The program is strictly for Tampa residents.
It was the first time the city had used general fund money to help with housing affordability, allotting $5 million to the program in its nascent year. The city’s proposed budget for next year includes another $5.5 million.
At the start of August, in a sea of struggling people, Levin was one of the lucky ones to be awarded money.
She had until the end of that week to convince Bay Colony Apartments management to sign the required papers, the city told her.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “The city looked at my application and said, ‘This woman needs help.’ The money is right there. It’s been given to me. And it’s gonna go back into the coffers.”
Communication is king
Levin’s rent went up by $375 in June, the start of her new annual lease. She was now spending roughly half of her monthly income — Levin relies on Social Security widow’s benefits to survive — on housing.
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She applied for the city’s help shortly thereafter, according to emails shared with the Tampa Bay Times.
On Aug. 2, the day after Levin was awarded the money, a city of Tampa staffer emailed her apartment management, according to emails reviewed by the Times, explaining the benefits.
Tampa officials extended Levin’s deadline through the weekend — three extra days — while city staff attempted to reach her building’s property manager, according to an Aug. 3 email.
If her apartment management didn’t sign by 5 p.m. on Aug. 8, the money she’d been awarded would go to someone else. She and her roommate would be on the hook for the full $1,775 rent each month.
Levin had struggled — and failed — to reach building management too, she told the Times on Aug. 5, with three days left to get the papers signed.
Since her first conversation with the property manager, no one had responded to her calls or emails, she said.
She didn’t know if management knew the city of Tampa was trying to reach them. And she couldn’t understand why they’d deny a guaranteed source of rent.
An apartment complex may not be willing to work with a rental assistance program for several reasons, according to Stover, the attorney at Gulfcoast Legal Services.
Building managers may be concerned they won’t receive the payments in a timely manner, citing bureaucracy.
Landlords also may not want to deal with — or feel they have the expertise to navigate — the paperwork involved, Stover said.
Jurisdictions can create additional protections for tenants. Pinellas County, for example, passed a tenants bill of rights earlier this month that aims to prohibit landlords from denying housing vouchers.
But generally, Stover said, a property owner is only bound to follow the terms of the lease they signed with the tenant.
‘My hands are tied’
With the clock ticking, Levin emailed anyone she could find who seemed to work at Bay Colony Apartments or its management company. She emailed the mayor. She emailed journalists. She felt desperate, she said.
On Aug. 5, with only the weekend left, she entered the apartment office in search of someone who would speak to her.
The property manager wasn’t there, according to a disturbance notice the building management provided Levin days later. Building management alleged she “screamed insults” at the employees present, according to the notice, stating that the “rant continued for over 20 minutes.”
Levin acknowledged she was upset.
“I feel like my hands are tied,” she told the Times through tears. “The time is going by and there’s nothing I can do. I’m gonna be losing all that money that I need.”
On Aug. 8, the day the rent forms were due, Bay Colony’s property manager called Levin and her roommate and partner, Norman Jones, into the office.
Management accused Levin of harassing staff in each of her interactions about the rent help, according to the disturbance notice: on her phone call with the property manager, in the emails she’d sent and during her visit to the apartment office on Aug. 5.
“You have derided and verbally abused management staff with numerous calls and emails,” stated the notice, which was written the same date as the meeting.
The building manager proposed a deal, according to Jones, Levin and her son, Alex Levin, who was also at the meeting.
Bay Colony would sign the documents the older adults needed to receive the city’s rental assistance. In exchange, Levin and Jones would have to sign a form agreeing they’d move out at the end of their lease in June 2023.
“It was an ultimatum,” Alex Levin, 29, said. “You have to leave, or we won’t sign the papers.”
Levin apologized, according to records Levin’s family kept of the meeting, saying she’d always been a model tenant in the past. She explained that, with the tight deadline, she was frustrated that no one would speak with her.
The property manager said it did not excuse her behavior, according to their records.
“I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never done anything wrong,” said Jones, 68, as he signed the paper agreeing to leave.
Wait times for affordable senior housing in Tampa Bay can range from six months to five years.
In Tampa, over 2,000 seniors are waiting for low-income housing programs overseen by the city, according to Margaret Jones, a director at the Tampa Housing Authority.
There was no guarantee that the older adults would be able to find cheaper rent at other apartments in Tampa’s private housing market — besides, they couldn’t foot the first or last month’s rent and security deposit many buildings require upfront.
In order to avoid ending up homeless now, Levin said she felt like she had to agree to move out of her home in the future.
“At least we’ve got 10 months,” she said. “At the same time, I find it absolutely ridiculous since we’ve been nothing but good tenants. There’s never been a problem. We’ve always paid our rent.”
The Times reviewed the document Levin and her roommate signed on Aug. 8 agreeing to move out at the end of their lease, which was also signed by the property manager.
The Times reviewed emails that show Bay Colony Apartments submitted Levin’s rent paperwork to the city of Tampa late that afternoon.
The Tampa Bay Times has a team of reporters focusing on rising costs in our region. If you have an idea, question or story to tell, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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