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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014
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Tribune report leads to city crackdown on rundown motels

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TAMPA — Add rundown motels to the city of Tampa's targets as it works to improve the dismal living conditions many of its residents endure.

And as with a crackdown launched earlier this year against the city's slumlords, this is one was sparked by news reports.

Three days after The Tampa Tribune detailed squalid conditions at the Budget Inn in East Tampa, city code inspectors issued dozens of citations for violations including rats, roaches, unsafe balcony railings and a leaking roof.

The motel at 4011 E. Columbus Drive is the site of repeated offenses and has a history of code violations dating back to 1990, according to records with Tampa code enforcement.

Sal Ruggiero, manager of city's Neighborhood Enhancement Division, said he has asked the city fire marshal to inspect the motel for violations of the fire safety code. Inspectors with the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants, which has logged dozens of violations against the motel since last year, also planned to inspect rooms there this week.

Ruggiero said he will ask the city attorney whether criminal charges can be brought against the men listed as managers or owners in city and state documents — Farooq Bhadelia and Abubaker Zubaida Bai.

“We're trying to use the repeat offender angle on them to get them in front of a criminal judge,” Ruggiero said.

Several attempts to contact the owners were unsuccessful.

A woman answered a phone number linked to Bai in city records but hung up after a reporter identified himself. Messages left Wednesday and Thursday were not returned.

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Two weeks ago, city code inspectors closed another motel with the same owners — the Economy Inn at 1810 Busch Blvd. — so the rooms could be treated for bed bugs.

The Budget Inn and Economy Inn are among a number of businesses that operate as motels in name only. They provide longer-term, last-ditch housing for poor people who can't afford the initial rent and deposits to get an apartment.

Many of the tenants at the Budget Inn at 4011 E. Columbus Drive have lived there two years or more, according to the manager, Megan Frederick.

“The issues in some of the rooms are issues people who live there created,” Frederick said in an interview.

The aggressive action against the two motels arises from the new, harder line Mayor Bob Buckhorn is taking against neglect by landlords at low-rent properties.

In July, after news reports highlighted repeated code violations at rental properties owned by former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown, Buckhorn launched a sweep by code enforcement officers targeting three sections of the city. Officers focused through the summer on owners Buckhorn labeled “the worst of the worst.”

The mayor minced no words Thursday, either, in describing the owners of the motels cited for violations — “villains,” he called them.

“I would point out that the owners of that hotel are a classic case,” the mayor said. “They were allowing people to live in a dump, in substandard, inhumane conditions to make money.”

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A Tribune story last Sunday focused in part on Wandalynn Hayes, a disabled woman who is guardian to her two grandchildren. Hayes lost the apartment she rented when the building went into foreclosure and the owner absconded with the tenants' rent money.

She was paying $255 a week for her room at the Budget Inn on Columbus, which had no refrigerator, microwave oven or air conditioning.

On the day a reporter visited Hayes' room there, she had spent a sleepless night guarding her food from a rat that entered through a hole in the bathroom wall. With one hand on a metal cane, Hayes sat on a sagging, stained mattress. A piece of plywood covered the heating and air conditioning unit. Hayes said the room had no heat — a deficiency pervasive in the hotel, according to the city code inspection reports.

Donyelle Craig, who also lived at the Budget Inn with her boyfriend from January to October, said the only lights working when they moved in were in the bathroom. During hard rains, water pushed up through the floor tiles when they walked across the floor.

And when they took a shower, water leaked from the bathroom into the main living-sleeping area, Craig said.

One of the violations cited in the code enforcement reports was a leaky roof. The owners have to fix or replace it before Jan. 5, when the property will be re-inspected, according to Ruggiero.

Drug dealing and prostitution were also rampant at the motel, Craig said. On several occasions, officers swept in and kicked down doors on the same row of rooms where Craig and her boyfriend lived.

“I had a television show every day,” she recalled with a chuckle.

Tampa police records show officers were called to the Budget Inn nearly 400 times in 2012, and 271 times so far this year.

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Families forced to crowd into dismal conditions showcases a lack of affordable housing in Hillsborough County, experts say.

“Not just here, but in the entire state of Florida there's a tremendous need for houses that are affordable for families below 50 percent of the area median income, and even more so for those with incomes of 30 percent of the median,” said Maria Barcus, chief executive officer of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

Government assistance, which in the past has worked to alleviate homelessness, is less available as budget deficits increase at state and federal levels.

Buckhorn pointed out that Community Development Block Grants, federal money that local governments often used for affordable housing, has declined during the past 10 to 15 years.

And at the state level, the Florida Legislature in the last four to five years has balanced overall budget deficits by sweeping trust funds created under the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act into the state's general fund.

The money, from taxes on documentary stamps, used to go into the State Housing Initiative Partnership Act.

“Those funds need to be put back into housing for families with 50 percent of the median income where it's needed,” Barcus said. “That would make homelessness easier to deal with and would make it easier to keep people from being homeless and get them back into a house.”

On Thursday, three non-profit organizations — Metropolitan Ministries, the Salvation Army and GracePoint — responded to Hillsborough County's request for proposals for plans to provide emergency housing to homeless or near-homeless families. The winning organizations will operate the plan with money that formerly went to the county's Homeless Recovery Program.

County Administrator Mike Merrill shut down Homeless Recovery after learning that hundreds of homeless individuals and families were being sent to substandard and unsafe apartments, trailers and rooming houses.

At a Friday commission retreat, Merrill insisted the county is not shirking its responsibilities to the homeless. Instead, Merrill said he is trying to form a broad-based coalition that includes the private sector and nonprofit organizations like the Homeless Initiative to attack the problem.

One of the coalition's priorities will be building an inventory of “suitable properties” for people to live in, Merrill said.

“The important message is, it's a community problem not a government problem,” Merrill said. “We are a big part of the solution but the private sector has said it will help.”

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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