TAMPA — There was a giant hole where the bathtub used to be. It was so black, it was hard to tell how deep it went. A dripping sound echoed.
Both of the toilets were clogged, and Shajuana Kitchen’s bedroom floor was soaked with sewage water, threatening shoes and video games stashed under the bed.
Kitchen stared down the mess on Thursday, Oct. 7, the low point of a maintenance crisis she’d been battling for months through desperate text messages. Then her 9-year-old, Gregory, stepped through the door, home from school.
“I need to use the bathroom,” he announced.
His father, Michale Pate, sighed. He got back in the car for a trip to the toilets at McDonald’s.
Three months ago, the family of six had moved into the three-bedroom ranch house at 1338 Windsor Way with high hopes. The rental looked like an upgrade, with gleaming marble kitchen counters, a big backyard and vinyl flooring that mimicked gray wood. Pandemic stimulus money helped them cushion the up-front costs of hiring movers and paying a security deposit.
The couple hung televisions on the walls, installed an alarm system and decorated the living room with family pictures. The children — Miracle, 5, Katelynn, 6, Eugene, 8, and Gregory, 9 — spelled their names in stickers on the bedroom doors.
But from the start, plumbing issues plagued the home, according to photos and text messages reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
Kitchen, 42, begged the property management company to fix things. She tried to stay patient as the family was reduced to one shower, then one toilet. Last week, when the second bathroom became unusable, her complaints grew more frantic.
The response came back: “We will give you 30 days to vacate.”
An overheating rental market
The family had decided to move in spring 2021. They were living a few blocks from the Windsor Way home, in a small bungalow in East Tampa, when their landlord announced a 25 percent rent hike. Their $1,200 monthly payment shot to $1,500.
In the six years they had lived there, the shower had constantly overflowed. The carpets were old and dirty. For that kind of money, surely they could find something better, Kitchen and her husband thought.
They didn’t realize rents were skyrocketing by at least 20 percent across the region. Tampa Bay tops lists of the fastest-growing rental markets in the country.
A recent report found it now takes three minimum wage jobs to make rent in Tampa Bay.
“But most people can’t easily just go anywhere — they have school or they have jobs,” said Elizabeth Strom, a public affairs professor at the University of South Florida who studies housing. “They are geographically constrained.”
Kitchen was relieved to find nearby 1338 Windsor Way for $1,510 a month. It was more than she could comfortably afford, but everything else looked even more expensive.
It was only a 10-minute drive from Lamb Elementary School, where her kids had friends and teachers they loved. Two of her children have developmental disabilities, and she saw them thriving at Lamb. The house also was near her job in Medicare insurance billing. She and Pate hoped to improve their credit score and, one day, buy a house of their own.
They saw it as a plus that the house was managed by a big company instead of a single owner. They figured that meant issues would be handled quickly.
After moving in June 22, Kitchen tried politely to get the attention of Tara Melvin, a property manager employed by Hampton & Hampton. In texts, she asked Melvin to take care of plumbing issues, air conditioning problems and fleas that were biting her children.
But less than three weeks into their move, Kitchen worried she was being ignored.
“Hi Mrs. Tara should I call a plumber out and save the receipt because the plumbing is backing up in the house,” she wrote July 12. “I’m not sure what to do at this point, I have been trying to contact you for these issues and now the water is coming through the floor again.”
On July 24, she tried again. She apologized for messaging Melvin on the weekend.
“We have to scoop the water out the tub to make sure there is no standing water left in the tub over night,” she wrote of the children’s shower.
A plumber came and unclogged the bathroom, but it stopped up again.
On Sept. 9, after more pleading texts, a plumber contracted by Hampton & Hampton came to the house and dug up the bathtub. He told Kitchen there was damage in the pipes underground.
Kitchen texted Melvin a photo of the hole he left, along with a pile of dirt: “It’s really scary staying like this because I have small kids.”
She followed up: “Would we need to get a hotel until it’s fixed?”
Melvin promised to get it cleaned up. “You have a working bathroom,” she texted.
A week later, the kids’ bathroom remained useless and the stench of sewage permeated the house. The family woke at 5 a.m. to take turns using the sole bathroom to wash up before school and work. As Kitchen texted with growing desperation, she always made sure to say, “Please.” And then her son saw a rat dart out of the hole.
“I’ll have them add the wire to keep out any critters,” Melvin texted.
“Yes ma’am please,” Kitchen replied.
But she was fed up.
The next day, Sept. 20, she called code enforcement. An inspector documented “an extremely large hole” and damage to the drainage system. He mailed a violation notice to the property owners.
On the night of Oct. 5, the other bathroom became clogged, and water overflowed. Kitchen’s frustration spiked.
“We have paid our rent for this month, we should not be forced to leave our home and go to a hotel this time of night because I can’t get a plumber to come out,” she wrote. “This is so unfair.”
The next day, Melvin replied: “Good morning, Decision is made. You will need to vacate the home.”
She texted a link to another house, asking if the family wanted to view it. Kitchen opened it at work. The home was about 30 minutes away and cost even more.
She waited until her break to write back, worried she might start crying in the office.
“Mrs Tara,” she began.
“I have planned my life and my children’s life around being in this property for a year. I’m not understanding what this issue is with you all fixing the property...” she wrote. “We have not done anything wrong.”
She asked, one more time, for the company to fix the issues. It felt like common sense — didn’t the landlord need to keep up their end of the bargain?
“We do apologize and know you want to stay, but this can not be allowed due to the extent of work,” Melvin wrote. She promised to return Kitchen’s security deposit. “Good luck in your search.”
Kitchen called her pastor and every friend and relative she could think of. Her sister paid for a few nights at a hotel.
In their bedroom, the brothers stuffed shirts and pants into a plastic garbage bag. Gregory fretted about his upcoming 10th birthday sleepover. What would his friends think if they saw the hole in his bathroom?
“We shouldn’t be living this way,” he whispered to himself.
Had the family wanted to move out, Florida law likely would have protected them for breaking their lease, according to experts consulted by the Times.
But they wanted fixes that would keep them from facing the punishing housing market and losing all they had invested in setting up the house. That left them with few options.
“They can call code enforcement, they can try to work with the landlord to get repairs done,” said Tom DiFiore, head of Bay Area Legal Services’ housing unit. “But if there’s really substantial repairs that aren’t being made, it’s a tough situation for a tenant.”
Legally, a tenant can withhold rent while problems persist. But DiFiore warns that the landlord can respond by launching an eviction case, adding a black mark to their record, even if the tenant ultimately wins their case.
Regulations for landlords of single-family houses are particularly loose, said Robin Stover, the director of housing at Gulf Coast Legal Services.
Stover reviewed Kitchen’s lease and found that the landlord can terminate it should the premises become “substantially impaired.” It also includes clauses that would make it difficult for Kitchen to sue for damages incurred due to the flooding and inconvenience she experienced.
Jon-Paul Lavandeira, the division director for Hillsborough Code Enforcement, said he sees situations similar to Kitchen’s frequently. Many tenants are afraid to call code compliance until the problem gets out of hand, for fear of getting kicked out for complaining, he said.
The problem at 1338 Windsor Way may have been exacerbated because the property managers did not get official permits for the plumbing work conducted, he added.
The house was bought by a private investment firm, Starwood Capital, in 2019. Based in Connecticut, Starwood’s vast portfolio stretches from Kitchen’s home to luxury condos in New York and high-end hotels across 100 countries.
Starwood will eventually have to deal with the home’s issues, Lavandeira said. A code enforcement hearing is slated for December. Absent repairs, they could face daily fines.
But code enforcement doesn’t get involved in landlord-tenant disputes. The most they could offer Kitchen was phone numbers to consumer protection services and social services offered by the county. If they qualified, they might be able to receive assistance for their next home deposit.
“That’s not the kind of company we are”
After visiting the house, the Times contacted Starwood Capital and Hampton & Hampton on Friday, Oct. 8. Melvin said Hampton & Hampton hadn’t been aware of the extent of the damage until inspectors went out.
“When something like that is found that we were unaware, we can terminate legally and tell her she has to leave,” she said. The company did not respond to further requests for comment.
But later that day, Kitchen got a call. Melvin offered to find an Airbnb for the family while the company fixed the house. Then, she said, they could move back in.
There had been a misunderstanding, she explained. “I’m not gonna leave you stranded like that. That’s not the kind of company we are,” Melvin said in a call Kitchen recorded, reviewed by the Times.
On Monday, a spokesperson for Starwood Capital, reached out to the Times with a statement:
“We were recently made aware of the maintenance issues at this property, and have since moved swiftly to ensure the tenant has a safe, comfortable place to live while the necessary repairs are made,” he wrote. “We are committed to making sure they are completed properly to ensure the issues do not occur again. We are in daily contact with the tenant.”
That evening, Kitchen and her family arrived at a three-bedroom duplex booked through Airbnb by Hampton & Hampton until Nov. 1. “It looks like a mansion,” 8-year-old Eugene said as they explored the rooms.
Kitchen was relieved to leave the two-bed hotel room they had been squeezing into but had a hard time trusting her family’s sudden turn of fortune. She prayed the company would follow through on their promises.
For now, she focused on getting the children unpacked and fed, then tucked in for the night. The upcoming week would be busy with Eugene’s football game, Gregory’s guitar lessons and the girls’ cheerleading practice. After months of disruption, it was time to get back into a routine.
Then, she and her husband could refocus on their goal. They still dreamed of buying a house.
Housing emergency resources:
Call 221 to reach Tampa Bay Cares, which connects people with local community agencies.
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