Tampa police overstep on evictions program | Editorial
It’s not the city’s job to so tightly link housing to the justice system.
Meridian Apartments on N 50th St. in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program.
Meridian Apartments on N 50th St. in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sep. 22

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is right: Nobody should live in fear in their own home. But the Tampa Police Department’s Crime-Free Multi Housing Program wrongly entangles housing policy with law enforcement. The reforms Castor announced last week in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation narrow the program and reduce the potential for abuse. Questions, though, remain about how much of a role police should play here.

Since 2013, the Tampa Police Department has taken a hands-on role at more than 100 apartment communities, sending notices to landlords that encourage evicting tenants who police officers stop or arrest. As the Times detailed, the Crime-Free Multi Housing Program was marketed to landlords as a way to keep violent crime and drug and gang activity off their properties.

Police pledged to create a database of “documented violent offenders, gang members or career criminals involved in your community.” The database alerted landlords to tenants arrested for armed robbery and drug dealing. But the program also swept up more than 100 people who were arrested for misdemeanors — and dozens more whose charges were later dropped, the Times investigation found.

Tenants were reported to their landlord for matters as small as shoplifting; two were reported for driving with a suspended license. Entire families lost their homes after the arrest of a child or a relative who didn’t live with them. And roughly 90 percent of the 1,100 people flagged by the program were Black, police records show, despite Black residents making up only 54 percent of all arrests in Tampa over the past eight years.

To coordinate the initiative, police created a database of roughly 600 arrested tenants. The list also included more than 150 tenants whose children, partner or guest had been arrested.

Tampa stopped maintaining the database in 2018 and has operated the program less aggressively since, sending fewer letters to landlords, toning down the language of their instructions and underscoring that the program was voluntary. The city also discontinued distributing a lease addendum that implied the police were involved in eviction decisions. Castor, who launched the initiative when she was police chief, strongly defended the program this week, crediting it for reducing crime in tough neighborhoods and improving the quality of life for fellow tenants. And officials insist the city has no say in whether a tenant is evicted — it merely shares public records with the landlord.

But Tampa cannot wash its hands that easily. A main component of the program was police singling out problem tenants — many of who then got evicted. It’s one thing if landlords want to conduct background checks or track the criminal histories of their tenants. It’s another for city government to interject itself as a middleman to jeopardize a person’s housing security.

Programs like Tampa’s exist in more than 2,000 U.S. cities, and a handful of Florida communities have programs similar to Tampa’s, including Orange County and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. But national experts said Tampa’s program violates federal housing law, and several civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU of Florida, have called for Tampa to scrap its program. After the Times report appeared online last week, Castor met with Tampa City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes and state Rep. Dianne Hart, and agreed to several changes. The city will now report to landlords only about crimes occurring on their property, and those crimes must be serious or violent, including burglary, certain drug crimes, felony battery and gang activity. Also, a police captain must sign off on all notices.

Those reforms make the guidelines tighter on paper, but it’s important to remember that under the previous guidelines police flagged dozens of tenants to landlords even though the arrests did not qualify. And a captain already oversaw the program. At the very least, Gudes and Hart should call for an independent review. There is no regular review now, which leaves the program on auto-pilot. And city council should request an annual report of notices and evictions for each property. That would keep the program in the public eye, and it could indicate if the program is singularly useful in reducing crime rates.

Landlords need to be responsible for their own tenant issues. The city can help with local infrastructure improvements, extra police patrols or even smaller initiatives and grants, but it has no business being this involved in the evictions process. This program is ripe for a fresh look.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.