1. Opinion

Editorial: Rooting out rot in housing program

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Published Nov. 1, 2013

Hillsborough County should hit the pause button on reforming its housing program and investigate the indifference and incompetence that enabled slumlords to live off taxpayer money while poor people with housing vouchers were forced to live in unsafe and sickening conditions. If the county mismanaged the program so egregiously before, why should the public have any confidence that it can get it right this time by supervising charities to do a better job instead? There is no real fix without understanding the depth of the problem.

The Tampa Bay Times' Michael Laforgia and Will Hobson reported Sunday how the county's mismanagement of its Homeless Recovery program endangered the very people whom taxpayers were getting off the streets. During the past five years, the county paid for space in buildings in blighted areas of central and north Tampa where homeless people, including families with children, veterans, the mentally ill and the working poor, were lumped together in filthy, crime-ridden slums. Caseworkers sent these clients to live in moldy, bug-infested rooms where some had to live alongside sex offenders or step over puddles of human waste to a bed paid for by taxpayers.

The hardships that residents relayed show why some homeless people would rather take their chances on the streets. Residents put poison on their mattresses to kill bedbugs. A father of three found syringes on the bathroom floor. Since 2009, police or sheriff's deputies visited the rentals some 5,500 times, or once every eight hours for five years. They chronicled reports of more than 300 assaults and 150 thefts. One-fourth of the $4.3 million the county has spent in the past five years has gone to vendors whose buildings were routine hazards or hotbeds of crime.

The county responded to the Times' reports by replacing two senior managers and moving to outsource the housing program to nonprofit groups. That is a step in the right direction, but it's clear the operation was shoddy throughout the ranks. So why is the county guaranteeing that the staff members replaced from the housing program will find new jobs in county government? It is appalling that these conditions existed, yet no one else is being held responsible for failing to enforce any order or decency.

County Commissioner Les Miller should start focusing more on reforming the housing program than on insisting that these employees all but be guaranteed a job if the county farms out the program to the nonprofits. The county also should consider whether it has the expertise to help nonprofits build the capacity to take over the housing operation. The new standards requiring housing units to pass health and safety codes are a step in the right direction. But why did no one at the county have the common sense or initiative to address these horrid conditions that regularly existed for years? The problem was lazy employees as much as bad policies, and the county must correct both issues to ensure the poor are housed in a more humane and responsible way.