TAMPA — Grant Park sits at the eastern edge of Tampa’s city limits, a half-mile square neighborhood of small, working-class homes, a park and two churches book-ended by Interstate 4 and the Pepin Distributing beer warehouse.
Most days, it’s easy to miss. Lately, though, the neighborhood was one of three focal points for Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s 30-day code enforcement sweep.
Inspectors combed Grant Park along with parts of North Tampa and Old Seminole Heights writing tickets for everything from uncut grass to deteriorated buildings. During the sweep, which has continued beyond the original 30-day window, a quarter of the community’s 630 properties got some sort of citation from code inspectors.
Damaris Cruz stopped outside one of them as she walked through her neighborhood on a recent afternoon. The faded peach-colored concrete-block house has been vacant for years, she said.
It’s windows are covered with weathered plywood. The overgrown yard earned it a code citation in late July.
“Honestly, houses like this make the neighborhood bad,” Cruz said. “They might as well knock it down and do something for somebody, maybe one of those Habitat houses for somebody low-income like me.”
Hillsborough County property records show the house is owned by Anthony Thomas of Seffner. Thomas said he lived in the house for about five years and moved out in 2007 when he filed for bankruptcy.
He said he has tried to get the city to understand he doesn’t own the house, that it isn’t his responsibility any more.
“I keeping calling code enforcement,” he said. “Nobody ever answers. Nobody has ever returned my call.”
City officials issued a warning to Thomas, giving him three weeks to clean up the property. If nothing happens, the warning will become a civil citation, which could send Thomas to the new code-enforcement docket that will open in the Hillsborough County Circuit Court on Oct. 3.
When Buckhorn launched his 30-day code enforcement sweep in mid-July, he said he was targeting “the worst of the worst” of the city’s property owners.
“We’re not targeting the senior citizen on disability pay,” Buckhorn said at the time. “We’re going after the most egregious slum lords.”
But a Tampa Tribune examination of the citations issued during that sweep shows the mayor’s dragnet caught more small fry than whales:
*About 90 percent of the property owners ticketed in the sweep own fewer than five properties citywide.
*About 75 percent of the properties ticketed lack homestead exemptions, indicating that they are investment properties. *Most landlords live in the Tampa area, but some live as far away as Canada, Israel and Paraguay. One has a confidential address, meaning the owner is a police officer, firefighter or judge – the three groups of people whose addresses are exempted from public records.
*The most common citations for uncut grass, piles of junk and cars considered unusable because of flat tires or expired license plates.
Two-thirds of the citations issued during the sweep were warnings, giving the property owners three weeks to correct the problem. At of the end of the 30-day sweep, about 150 property owners fixed their problems and about two dozen more had asked for re-inspections to show they were in compliance.
“I think we’ll see more of that in the next few weeks,” Buckhorn said last week. “I think you’re going to see 75 to 80 percent voluntary compliance.”
Buckhorn said the sweep was working even if it fell short of his original plan to snare the city’s slum lords. Catching hundreds of absentee landlords can be just as helpful, he said.
“If someone who lives in Tampa Palms but owns a rental unit in Sulphur Springs doesn’t maintain that property, it’s no different than someone with multiple properties,” Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn began his seven-day-a-week code sweep last month after the revelation that then-Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown had run an decrepit, illegal trailer park for more than a year on land he owns in Old Seminole Heights.
The week the situation came to light, Brown quickly dismantled the trailer park and eventually resigned his position on the authority.
In the weeks since then, Buckhorn launched his code sweep, persuaded the circuit court to create two separate code-enforcement dockets, and proposed adding $350,000 to the city’s code-enforcement budget in 2014. He is also adding nine people to the code staff and cross-training five solid waste inspectors to catch other violations.
Buckhorn said the effort will continue as long as possible and may move to other neighborhoods.
“I think there has been a sea change in how we approach code enforcement,” he said.
On Friday, a week after the 30-day sweep officially ended, code enforcement officer Angeline Johnson was still working the streets of Grant Park. At lunch time, she taped a pink code warning for an untagged car to the door of a duplex on North Whittier Street.
“I feel like we’re making a difference,” Johnson said. “A lot of people have told me thank you for bringing Grant Park back.”