St. Petersburg mayoral candidate and City Council member Robert Blackmon has repeatedly touted his role as a tenant-friendly landlord focused on bringing better affordable housing options to the city.
“I spend my time rehabbing affordable homes in our community,” Blackmon said in his first TV campaign ad, which premiered earlier this month.
As that ad was airing, Alicia Roberts was in the midst of fighting an eviction notice from Blackmon. In April, Blackmon purchased the 10-unit apartment complex where Roberts has lived for the past 13 years.
The ad featuring her landlord, whom she had never met, felt like a different reality than the one she was living.
“If he stands by affordable housing, I don’t think this is a very good way of showing it,” Roberts said.
Shortly after purchasing the Paradise Apartments in south St. Petersburg, records show that Blackmon filed eviction proceedings against three of its tenants, including Roberts. The court filings touched off an outcry from some tenant advocates, with the St. Petersburg NAACP sending Blackmon a letter and the St. Petersburg Tenants Union holding a news conference earlier this month outside the complex.
An affordable housing expert said a landlord removing tenants shortly after purchasing a property may not be uncommon. But critics say the threatened evictions are a warning sign for a candidate vying to lead a city struggling with a lack of affordable housing.
Blackmon, who dropped the eviction proceedings on July 15, said the uproar was unfair and maintained he has a track record of increasing the city’s supply of quality affordable housing options.
“We are not currently seeking eviction of any resident of Paradise Apartments, and are committed to making this property something the residents of Paradise and the community can be proud of,” Blackmon said in a statement.
Tenants question motive
Tenant John Henry Ford’s son had been killed in a shooting just three weeks before a process server issued him a court summons for eviction. The eviction proceedings felt like “a nail in the coffin” as he grappled with his oldest child’s death, said Ford, a disabled veteran.
Blackmon purchased the property April 30. Court documents show that both Ford and Roberts were on month-to-month leases; they were notified May 11 that their leases would be terminated and they would need to move from their apartments by month’s end. When they overstayed, Blackmon filed for eviction on June 14.
A third tenant, Terrence Gordon, was given three day’s notice to pay $259 in overdue rent or face eviction, court records show. A fourth tenant received a similar notice and voluntarily moved out of the complex, according to Roberts.
“They just came in like bulldogs and said, ‘You got two weeks to pay rent or get out,’” Ford said of Blackmon and his business partner and mother, Carolee Blackmon. Ford said it felt like the Blackmons wanted to remove tenants as quickly as possible and raise rent. “To me, it feels like gentrification.”
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Ford’s case progressed to the point where a sheriff’s deputy could have posted an eviction order if requested by Blackmon, although Blackmon never did.
Attorney Matthew Weidner, who represents all three tenants pro-bono, argued in court that Ford had been too distraught because of his son’s death to meet some of the tight deadlines in the eviction case.
“One of Blackmon’s key issues is that he talks about being an affordable housing champion. It just strikes me as very inconsistent,” Weidner said. “You’re running for mayor, and you’re evicting four people who are down on their luck?”
Weidner and his law firm have donated $9,500 to the mayoral campaign and political committee of City Council member Darden Rice, as well as $2,000 to the mayoral campaign and political committee of former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. Weidner said he’s donated to political candidates his whole life and the donations speak for themselves.
Blackmon declined an interview for this story and did not address most of the questions the Tampa Bay Times sent him via email. He did, however, provide a statement challenging claims he acted inappropriately.
“A number of residents were both non-communicative and non-paying, hindering the ability to make the necessary repairs and upgrades,” Blackmon wrote, adding he’s now moving forward with a six-figure repair and renovation effort.
The Blackmons own several other properties across St. Petersburg. In a search of Pinellas County court records, the Tampa Bay Times identified seven other eviction proceedings filed by the Blackmons since 2013.
Even with the evictions at Paradise Apartments dropped, some are questioning Blackmon’s motivations and practices.
Last week, Allendale United Methodist Church pastor Andy Oliver, who has endorsed Welch for mayor, shared screenshots on Facebook that are purportedly from Blackmon’s Facebook account, including one from 2012 that reads:
“Just bought a 5 unit apartment building downtown. Now to kick out the tenants and start the renovations.”
Property records show Blackmon purchased a five-unit apartment building near downtown the day the post was made, but court records reveal no related evictions. Blackmon did not respond to questions about the post, including whether it was actually from his account.
Oliver, who attended a St. Petersburg Tenants Union news conference at Paradise Apartments earlier this month, added a comment alongside the screenshots, quoting Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
The lasting effects of evictions
Eviction proceedings can have long-term damaging effects on tenants even if they don’t end in displacement, experts and advocates say, and not only in damaging their chances at getting future rentals.
Roberts said she spent hundreds of dollars applying to apartments when she thought she would be forced out.
“This is traumatizing. You don’t know how many tears have poured down my eyes thinking I’ve only got two weeks, what am I gonna do, and I paid out all of this money,” she said.
Tenant protections are weak in Florida, making it easy for landlords to legally remove tenants, said University of South Florida public affairs professor Elizabeth Strom, who studies affordable housing.
She said she’s not familiar with this case, but said that while removing tenants shortly after purchasing a property may not be uncommon, she wouldn’t have done so if she were a mayoral candidate.
“We’re still in a time of pandemic, so to be the person who’s evicting people for anything other than egregious breaks in their leases would seem like a bad message to send,” Strom said.
Some experts worry that evictions could surge this year after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month.
Roberts said she’d found a way to pay her $600 rent every month for over a decade, but fell behind during the pandemic in paying the apartment’s previous owner. She said the number of broken appliances in her apartment were also a factor in her decision to stop paying.
Roberts said she appreciates that the Blackmons dropped the eviction proceedings. Since then, she said, they have treated her well.
Problems at Paradise predate Blackmon
There were problems at Paradise well before the Blackmons bought the property.
Roberts said she hadn’t had a working refrigerator, sink, oven or stove for months. All that is fixed now, she said, crediting the involvement of activists and lawyers. As recently as July 8, Roberts said she still had sewage backing into her bathtub and several non-functioning electrical outlets.
Roaches infested Ford’s apartment, he said on July 13, and there was a broken window, as well as issues with plumbing, hot water, mold and electricity.
Some fixes have been made under Blackmon’s watch. The complex has been fumigated, Roberts’ apartment received new appliances, and an electrician and plumber were brought in.
Blackmon began preparing to make improvements when he purchased the property, the City Council member wrote in his statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I am proud to be a provider of quality affordable housing in St. Petersburg,” Blackmon wrote. “My family business manages affordable apartments throughout the city. We have worked to increase the supply of affordable housing options in our community.”
St. Petersburg NAACP president Esther Eugene sent Blackmon a letter before the cases were dropped that urged him to address the condominium’s many issues and halt evictions. Blackmon should be held to a higher standard as a City Council member, she told the Tampa Bay Times.
“The tenants having to reach out to community resources says that they feel like they weren’t being heard by their landlord,” she said.
Even after the evictions were dropped, advocates have continued to raise concerns about the tenants’ future in Paradise Apartments, and about Blackmon’s role in affordable housing.
St. Petersburg Tenants Union organizers Karla Correa and William Kilgore said that as they pursued long-term leases for the tenants, Carolee Blackmon repeatedly told them she would need to raise rent to let the tenants stay.
Kilgore described the Blackmons making fixes and dropping eviction proceedings as “damage control.”
“He should have never filed these evictions in the first place,” Kilgore said of Robert Blackmon. He called on Blackmon to commit to setting rents based on income, giving tenants more control over operations and never evicting residents.
“He’s the affordable housing crisis. It’s literally him buying up properties, fixing them up, and then charging more for them,” Correa said. “That’s what’s happening all over St. Pete, and he’s one of the people doing it. You can’t say you’re fighting it when you’re directly participating and benefiting from it.”
With eviction off the table for now, both Roberts and Ford say they are hoping for affordable long-term leases at Paradise Apartments. So far, they say, such discussions have barely gotten off the ground.
“I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go,” Ford said. “I feel like a ghost.”