1. Opinion

Preventing the next predator landlord

Published Sep. 9, 2013

It is appalling that people receiving housing assistance in Hillsborough County had to live in squalor because bureaucrats who ran the housing agency were too incompetent and indifferent to ensure that these units were fit for human habitation. The county — in anticipation of bad press — took the first step Friday toward correcting the problem, but it will need to follow through with broader reforms to keep the abuses from happening again.

The Tampa Bay Times' Will Hobson, in a story published Sunday, chronicled the long and close relationship between the housing program, Homeless Recovery, and one of its higher profile landlords, William "Hoe" Brown. The Republican fundraiser resigned as chairman of the Tampa Port Authority in July after the Times reported that he rented squalid housing.

Hobson found that the county agency had paid Brown more than $600,000 since 1998 to provide housing for the poor. The rent for one resident, Sharmel Troupe, and her boyfriend came to $388 for a three-week stay in a bug-infested corner of a converted garage. The couple bought caulk to combat the bugs. In interviews with the Times, managers said the agency does not refer clients to specific properties. And they insisted they had never gotten a complaint about Brown's rental properties. Neither was true, according to hundreds of emails the Times examined.

The agency routinely reached out to Brown to house publicly subsidized tenants. Scores of emails show that caseworkers repeatedly sent him clients. The arrangement provided steady income for Brown, averaging $40,000 a year, records show. Yet the agency said it did not have the staff to inspect properties where the dozens of landlords provide housing to otherwise homeless people. If clients end up living in slum housing, these officials said, it's because there is nothing else available for people with bad credit, criminal records or other problems.

None of these excuses justify warehousing people in squalid conditions. Taxpayers are paying healthy rental rates to these landlords, and the minimum the county must do is ensure the housing is up to code, safe and sanitary. In anticipation of the Times' report, County Administrator Mike Merrill late Friday reassigned the Homeless Recovery program to a new supervisor. He ordered that properties be inspected, and he halted the agency's practice of placing clients with landlords, leaving that choice to the clients themselves. Merrill also ordered an audit of the program. These steps will help improve housing for the needy and better ensure that taxpayers get the most for their money. And they should get the county thinking about ways to expand affordable housing options.