How a housing scandal happens

 

So a prominent political fundraiser in Tampa turns out also to be a landlord with a lucrative relationship with a public agency that’s supposed to help the homeless.

That’s help the homeless, not help someone take advantage of the homeless.

How is it we let a slumlord scandal like Hoe Brown’s happen?

Because, hey, around these parts we’re all over this homeless thing. Tampa adopts bans on panhandling and sleeping in parks. (We even divide park benches down the middle to thwart the apparent crime of lying down.)

So what about attempts at real help, like Pinellas Hope across the bay, 20 acres of tents and services offering a hand up? An effort to do something similar a few years back east of Tampa was defeated because of concerns of nearby residents and business owners. Hard to blame them. Imagine how fast the idea would have died had it been proposed anywhere near South Tampa’s pricey neighborhoods.

But Hillsborough County’s Homeless Recovery Program had the right philosophy: Give people the kind of help they need for a chance to get off the streets, like job counseling, bus passes and, most importantly, housing, as in rent money.

Did someone say rent money?

William“Hoe” Brown, well-known Republican fundraiser and, until the slumlord scandal, chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, turned out to also be the owner of rental properties unfit for human habitation but housing humans anyway.

Don’t take my word for it: Tampa’s code enforcement director said the squalor was“shocking” in five split-in-half, single-wide mobile homes illegally placed on an improbably small spit of yard outside Brown’s Seminole Heights office.

“People shouldn’t have to live like that,” he said, but they did. As the Times’ Will Hobson reported, Brown’s relationship with the county agency providing rent funding lasted more than a decade and netted him more than $600,000 in public money.

The agency denied sending people to specific properties like Brown’s. But regular emails between them and Brown him advising them that he had places available, them sending missives like“any openings, please?” would tend to refute that.

How does a Hoe Brown happen? Not enough affordable housing. Too few property owners willing to deal with the homeless. And a county agency that was not paying enough attention to the people who need it most.

In the wake of the embarrassing slumlord scandal, big reform is promised. Homeless Recovery’s manager quit. The agency is now under the Affordable Housing Office. There are promises of policy change, oversight and an audit. It’s a start.

Real inspections of rental properties involving actual standards would be nice, because they often house the people who have no real voice and are afraid to complain prime victims for predatory property owners and a government with a blind eye.

Getting people off the street is not an easy problem. It can involve thorny issues of addiction and mental illness and myriad other complications. It’s not easily fixed. But thoughtful ideas are out there. (See: Pinellas Hope.)

But one sure way to stop progress is failing to have a steady hand at the wheel and a watchful eye out for those interested in helping only themselves.

Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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