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Hillsborough landlord raises rent on low-income families despite press to hold rents steady during pandemic

Tenants at Woodberry Woods Apartments in Brandon face $50 a month rent hike even as some have lost work because of the coronavirus.
Teenagers shoot hoops in front of a pile of concrete slabs that residents said have been piled up in the Woodberry Woods Apartment parking lot for months. The property management company is raising the rent by about $50 per month despite recommendations to keep rents stable during the pandemic.
Teenagers shoot hoops in front of a pile of concrete slabs that residents said have been piled up in the Woodberry Woods Apartment parking lot for months. The property management company is raising the rent by about $50 per month despite recommendations to keep rents stable during the pandemic. [ Christopher O'Donnell ]
Published Jul. 28, 2020|Updated Jul. 31, 2020

BRANDON — At a time when millions of people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, the focus of many has been on helping those most affected by the pandemic.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a stay on evictions to prevent homelessness. Utility companies announced they would not disconnect the water and electricity of families unable to pay their bills.

So tenants at Woodberry Woods Apartments, an income-restricted housing complex in Brandon, were shocked when they were told recently that their rent is being raised — in some cases by $50 a month — in the middle of a global public health emergency.

A letter sent to residents July 16 states that the higher rents will kick in Sept. 1. The monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment will rise to $999, an increase of about $53. The hikes for one- and two-bedroom apartments are slightly lower.

Tenants said it’s the second rent increase in little more than a year and will hit hardest those who have lost work. They also question why they should pay more to live in a poorly maintained complex.

The concrete on some stairwells is crumbling, and slabs of concrete from dug-up curbs have lain for months in a parking lot, residents said. On a recent Thursday evening, the property’s retention pond was full of trash, and discarded furniture was piled up outside the community gates, which residents said have not worked for months.

“In times like this, people are in need,” said Deonte Johnson, who was out of work for a month until Keke’s Breakfast Cafe reopened after the shutdown and rehired him. “I feel it’s unfair when you look around this neighborhood.”

Trash lies in the retention pond at Woodberry Woods Apartments in Brandon.
Trash lies in the retention pond at Woodberry Woods Apartments in Brandon. [ Christopher O'Donnell ]

The landlord, New York based Read Property Group, bought the 348-unit complex in 2014 for $21.8 million, records show. It was built with funding that included $1.7 million in tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corp, a state agency that administers money to incentivize the construction of affordable housing.

In exchange, the apartments can be rented only to families who make 60 percent or less of the region’s median household income, with rents capped at affordable levels for those families.

But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new figures at the end of March, showing incomes had risen over the previous year and opening the door for affordable-housing landlords to raise rents. The new numbers do not factor in pandemic-related hits to the economy or the loss of income for millions of Americans.

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Related: Low-income families could see rents go up during the crisis

The decision to raise rents at Woodberry Woods was made by Broad Management Group, the company that manages the property.

The company delayed the rent increase, which it could have implemented in June, by three months because of the pandemic, according to a man who said he was a spokesman but refused to give his name. He said the additional revenue is needed to help pay for a rehab of the property.

In recent months, the roofs were rehabbed, according to residents.

A welcome home sign near the leasing office at the Woodberry Woods Apartments in Brandon.
A welcome home sign near the leasing office at the Woodberry Woods Apartments in Brandon. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But the hike goes against a recommendation from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which has urged landlords not to raise rents. It also approved an emergency rule to give preference to landlords who don’t raise rents when it comes awarding future tax credits.

“Florida Housing is disappointed to hear that a property in our portfolio would increase rent on families in Florida during a public health emergency,” said spokeswoman Taylore Maxey in an email. “Florida Housing’s Emergency Rule created a disincentive, as we continue to do everything legally possible to discourage rent increases from property owners and managers.”

Related: Florida housing officials take action to curb rent spikes on low-income families

Johnson, the Keke’s worker, said the hike will hit his family hard. Before the pandemic, he worked a second job at Arby’s, but was laid off. He and his girlfriend live with their young son.

“It does affect us,” he said. “Rent, food and diapers — it does add up.”

Residents also complained that it can take the complex maintenance team more than two weeks to respond to work orders.

Jessica Carwise said she has been paying for a washer and dryer that don’t work and said there is black mold in her apartment.

“For them to raise the rents, they should take care of the apartments more,” she said.

Trash piles up in front of the trash compactor at the Woodberry Woods Apartments.
Trash piles up in front of the trash compactor at the Woodberry Woods Apartments. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Hillsborough County records show the complex has been cited repeatedly by code enforcement officers.

One report was about the damp and smell left behind after a crew repaired a large break in a pipe, which was triggering a resident’s allergies.

Another stated: “Tenant states there is a leak over the bathtub with the ceiling bulging outward. There is mold present. There are water stains along the walls at the baseboards. The laundry room is also leaking from upstairs, going down the wall into the living room. The a/c is leaking. Carpet smells due to the leaking and dampness.”

The vast majority of enforcement issues were corrected and closed, records show.

• • •

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