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Public shaming trumps Tampa Bay landlord’s reeking callousness | Editorial
A Tampa family endured severe plumbing issues for months, while the out-of-state investment firm did little to remedy the problems.
Photos of bathroom construction work inside 1338 Windsor Way, Tampa, on Oct. 7.
Photos of bathroom construction work inside 1338 Windsor Way, Tampa, on Oct. 7. [ Kavitha Surana ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 28

It’s hard to say what’s worse about a plumbing problem a landlord refuses to fix: the sanitary nightmare or the reeking indifference. A Tampa family endured both for months, pleading with a property manager to clean up the mess they were paying a steep rent to live in. The episode points to a sobering economic reality of Tampa Bay in 2021: In a tight housing market, the little guy loses.

Times staff writer Kavitha Surana recently chronicled the plight of a husband, wife and their four school-age kids who moved into a three-bedroom home in a subdivision bordered by the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, between downtown and Brandon. At $1,510 a month, it stretched the family’s budget — but it had a spacious backyard and was close to the kids’ school. Those are basic features any resident looks for when seeking housing, but few people can afford to be particular in this market, where it takes three minimum-wage jobs to cover the average rent.

The story reviewed text messages Shajuana Kitchen sent to her property manager when the tub backed up and water seeped through the floor. Kitchen’s apologies and unfailing politeness are painful to read, knowing she and her husband were having to scoop water out of the tub nightly and drive their kids to a McDonald’s restaurant to use the potty.

(Clockwise from top left) Michael Pate, 53, Shajuana Kitchen, 42, Eugene Pate, 8, Katelynn Pate, 6, Miracle Pate, 5, and Gregory Pate, 9. The family is stayed in a hotel the weekend of a family wedding. “We couldn’t stay in the house. The kids have been through so much hardship and my oldest daughter is getting married today,” Michael Pate said. The family is pictured Saturday, October 9, 2021.
(Clockwise from top left) Michael Pate, 53, Shajuana Kitchen, 42, Eugene Pate, 8, Katelynn Pate, 6, Miracle Pate, 5, and Gregory Pate, 9. The family is stayed in a hotel the weekend of a family wedding. “We couldn’t stay in the house. The kids have been through so much hardship and my oldest daughter is getting married today,” Michael Pate said. The family is pictured Saturday, October 9, 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Market conditions aside, every property owner should be expected, at a minimum, to maintain safe, sanitary properties — and respond quickly when big things break. But the response from Starwood Capital, the out-of-state investment firm that owns the house, was to get its property manager to send a plumber to unclog the tub, which backed up again. Then they dug out the tub completely, leaving a gaping black hole in the floor. The property manager’s text to Kitchen: “You have a working bathroom,” apparently deeming the problem resolved because the home’s other bathroom wasn’t a putrid health hazard. That toilet eventually broke too.

The property manager finally owned up to how dire the home’s problems were. But instead of committing to fixing them, they told Kitchen she and her family would have to move out. The lease contained a provision allowing the landlord to terminate the contract should the home become “substantially impaired.” Once again, that meant Kitchen would have to navigate the punishing rental market to try to find her family a decent place to live.

Fortunately, once the Times began bringing this unflattering story to light, Starwood stepped up. It found an Airbnb for Kitchen and her family to move into while repairs are made. But that just raises the no-duh question: If the company could pay for an Airbnb to house the family and fix the pipes, why did it take months of pleading and ultimately being shamed by the local media to do what was needed all along?

Of course, most landlords aren’t so negligent. But with large conglomerates buying up more and more of the local rental market, tenants end up with less power. Although this ended well for Shajuana Kitchen and her family, there are still countless renters throughout Tampa Bay in similar straits.

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A drastically lopsided seller’s market means families shopping for their first home get edged out by buyers with more cash on hand. It means renters, many of whom cling to the lower rungs in any market, too often have to put up with poor treatment and unacceptable conditions because there are so few affordable options. At a minimum, the toilets should flush and the tub shouldn’t leak.

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.