TAMPA — The first phone call last November confused real estate agent Jason Papi. Why, the angry stranger wanted to know, did Papi submit a code complaint against his home?
The second call, weeks later, was jarring. Papi’s team leader with Keller Williams Realty asked if he had maliciously squashed a colleague’s sale by submitting the same type of complaint to the city of Tampa.
Days later, there was a third call. Another stranger spewed profanity.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about,” Papi said. He went looking for answers and describes what he discovered as alarming.
Someone, Papi alleges, has been fraudulently filing complaints under his name through the city of Tampa’s website.
City records show that from Oct. 5 through March 27, “Jason Papi” made at least 50 complaints against 48 homes owned by 44 different property owners. Each had enough information for the city to investigate the claims.
“I did not make a single one of those,” said Papi.
Each code complaint was reported to the city through its online portal. They were typically for work done without permits, prompting investigations of the homes by the construction services department that oversees such violations.
The properties span Port Tampa to the Busch Gardens neighborhood — and most of the homes turned out to have legitimate violations.
Twenty-seven of the investigations have been closed and, of those, at least 18 concluded that there was a problem. At least three had violations for work completed years earlier by a previous owner.
At least 44 of the properties were for sale or rent — or recently sold or rented — at the time of the complaint. At least 28 are owned by investment property companies.
Papi, who also owns rental properties in the area, said eight owners have called him and he’s received another half-dozen or so calls from people asking for him and then hanging up. Papi said that he thinks the calls are related.
How to stop complaints?
On Feb. 7, Papi sent a letter to the city maintaining that he was not behind the slew of complaints. In November, according to the letter, he called the Code Enforcement Department and asked that it stop taking complaints in his name. The letter reiterated the request.
“I fear that a disgruntled individual will show up to my home one day to harm myself, my wife, or our dog,” Papi wrote. “We would like to live our lives in peace and work on starting our own family once we feel safe in our own home again.”
City spokesperson Adam Smith said that since the letter was received any code complaints bearing Papi’s name would have to be made via notarized letter. But city records show that one for a dilapidated fence was submitted via the code enforcement website on March 27. It prompted an investigation without a notarized letter.
Smith said that 12 complaints made in Papi’s name since Feb. 7 have been dismissed without an investigation because they were submitted online.
Julie Magill, a real estate broker and general contractor whose client’s rental property is among those impacted, is convinced that Papi is not behind the slew of complaints. She has spent months pulling city records as part of her own investigation and has reached out to other affected property owners.
“It absolutely was not him,” Magill said. “He is as much a victim as they are.”
Anonymous code complaints were once allowed, but Florida lawmakers thought those had emboldened feuding neighbors to make frivolous charges. So, in July 2021, a state law banned municipalities from investigating anonymous submissions unless the issue is deemed an imminent danger. Anyone reporting a violation must provide their name and home address.
“Our code enforcement resources are scarce in many places and this, I think, will better target and focus complaints on disputes that are legitimate,” said Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley when she first presented the bill in February 2021.
Magill thinks the law should require a third-party verification system. “How can we just operate on the honor system?” she said.
Marc Hamburg, a real estate agent since 1977, said that sometimes people take code enforcement complaints to the extreme.
“Occasionally you get a neighborhood watchdog who reports every problem that they see,” he said. “A disgruntled tenant might want the house fixed or to get back at the landlord. A potential buyer might make a complaint to get a better deal. Or someone might just have a vendetta against the owner.”
But Hamburg said that he has never heard of an instance of someone making so many complaints that cover such a large swath of the city. “Typically, if someone is making numerous complaints, they’re in the same neighborhood.”
The “Papi” complaints are the talk of the real estate community, Hamburg said, with some wondering if one of their own is targeting competitors.
Magill believes that there are likely other fake names being used to make complaints.
Looking through Tampa code enforcement records from the last year, the Tampa Bay Times identified two possible fraudulent names.
From Sept. 12 through Oct. 6, “Isaac Booth” made at least 25 complaints via email spanning the city and mostly against investment properties. When the Times sent a message to the email address listed on the complaints, it bounced back. And, according to the property manager of his listed residence, no one by that name has ever lived there.
From April 12 through May 15, “Louis Hernandez” made at least 13 similar complaints through a mix of email and the city’s website. But the home address listed was for rent during that period, according to its property manager’s website. The property manager did not respond to a Times call. There was no reply to a message sent to the listed email.
Papi, when told about Booth and Hernandez, was convinced that they were connected to the complaints made under his name. He pointed out that complaints in Booth’s name stopped the day after they began in his name.
Who has the time?
It doesn’t appear that someone is driving the city in search of violations.
According to Magill, it looks like someone is combing through online real estate listings, comparing current photos to those from past listings and looking for changes, then checking to see if permits were pulled for that work — public information available through the city’s website.
“How else would they know what work was done inside the house?” Magill said.
Of the complaints made in Papi’s name, at least 21 include interior work and some of those reference a Zillow listing. Whoever is behind them, Magill said, she estimates it took the complainant 15 minutes to acquire the information.
“It’s pretty easy,” she said. “All it takes is a computer and some time.”
The property owners
Twelve homeowners cited due to “Papi” complaints returned a Times phone call or email. Three spoke on the record. Others worried that whoever was behind the complaints might continue targeting them if they talked.
The pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church owns the first home that was the subject of a complaint.
As part of his move into the campus parsonage to be more accessible to parishioners, Gabriel Morgan sought to sell his home. But the house has been off the market since a city engineer responded to a complaint, investigated the residence and cited it for three violations that could cost up to $14,000 to remedy. Morgan said a sliding glass door is 3 inches too short, the exterior deck’s posts must be redone and an electrical panel was improperly installed.
The violations were for work completed by the previous owner. Morgan has owned the home since 2016.
“It’s distressing,” he said. “In addition to feeling that we’ve been taken advantage of by the person that we purchased the property from, it feels like we’ve been taken advantage of again.”
Based out of Texas, Chris Wolfe said he flips 50 to 70 homes a year in California, Texas and Tampa. One of his Tampa properties was found to be in violation for not pulling permits for a “full interior remodel. New windows all around. New front door,” according to the complaint.
“I should have pulled remodeling permits, but I didn’t because it was basic cosmetic work being done by licensed people,” Wolfe said.
Besides the lack of permits, investigators found nothing wrong with the work.
Before he was reached by the Times and learned about Papi’s denial of responsibility, Wolfe said that he had been considering “calling and cussing him out.”
If Papi is not behind the complaints, Wolfe thinks another home flipper or real estate agent is.
“Competition is trying to get other people shut down,” Wolfe said.
A property owned by house flipper Tim Nguyen was found in violation for a “full renovation without permits,” according to the complaint, but he said the primary issue cited by the city investigator was a porch enclosed by a previous owner.
He bought the house in September, was cited in January, and has since suspended the sale until he can bring the porch up to code. Nguyen estimates that he lost $50,000 on the investment property so far due to accruing interest and work to bring the home up to code.
“It has cost me time,” Nguyen said. “And time is money when paying loans.”
Papi said he wants to learn who is tarnishing his name and hopes the impacted property owners believe him.
“I just want this to stop,” he said. “I don’t want to receive angry calls or fear that someone is after me. I just want to live my life in peace.”