TAMPA - City officials say they plan to keep a close eye on properties owned by Tampa Port Authority Chairman William "Hoe" Brown after he was forced to shut down an illegal trailer park in Old Seminole Heights where some tenants were living in squalor.
The condition of Brown's property added weight to calls by Tampa City Council members and others to boost the resources of the city's code enforcement division. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said more money could be added immediately in the 2014 budget that goes to the city council July 18.
The revelations cast a cloud over the reputation of Brown, a powerhouse Republic fundraiser and publicly elected state committeeman.
"We are aware of the recent news and are reaching out to Mr. Brown regarding the troubling accusations," said Melissa Sellers, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott appointed Brown to the Tampa Port Authority and is the only person who could remove him.
Through his spokeswoman, Brown - a businessman, longtime real estate investor and prominent figure in the Republican Party of Florida - defended his decision to house a dozen or more low-income tenants on his property and apologized for letting conditions there deteriorate.
"In hindsight, he made a judgment error," said Beth Leytham, retained to represent Brown after city code enforcement officials visited his property Monday.
Brown's supporters stood by him Wednesday.
State Sen. Tom Lee, who chairs the Hillsborough County Republican Party, declined to offer an opinion on whether Brown should resign his position as a state committeeman, one of three Hillsborough delegates to the state party.
"I know Hoe has done a tremendous amount of good work in our community," Lee said. "I expect Hoe will do the right thing by these families and the city."
v vBrown installed five small trailers on his property at 102 and 106 W. Stanley St. about a year ago. They were the type commonly used as offices on construction sites.
Each trailer was subdivided into two studio apartments with plumbing, electrical service and air-conditioning, Leytham said.
The utilities were run out from a building on the property, a one-story stucco house that is divided into several apartments. The property is zoned for commercial use, a designation that bars mobile home parks.
Brown's real estate investment company, J.B. Carrie Properties Inc., is headquartered in the house. He also owns a nearby six-unit motel on Florida Avenue.
Brown's tenants were a mix of people down on their luck who found their way to him, some by word of mouth, others through a leasing agent he hired. They paid more than $500 a month for rent and utilities.
"We are talking about folks that have had very tough, tough lives, many unemployed," Leytham said. "Some on government assistance of some sort. Many with substance abuse issues. A very difficult population."
Leytham said Brown intended to help people who needed it. But he let conditions on the property get out of hand.
Leytham said Brown didn't realize he had done anything wrong until May 7, when he got a letter from the city telling him to shut down the trailer park. His case was scheduled to go before a special magistrate on Sept. 8.
For two months, Brown made no move to address the problem.
"He set (the letter) aside and was wrestling with how to handle it," Leytham said.
Things came to a head last weekend, when residents began complaining to the city about living conditions on the property. At least one unit was infested with roaches, they reported.
On Monday, Code Enforcement Director Jake Slater visited the site with one of his inspectors. Slater said Wednesday that Brown gave them permission to enter the apartments.
"The first thing was the stench," Slater said. "Overwhelming."
The tenant slept on a soiled, bare mattress. His apartment was overrun with roaches. He had open sores on his body, Slater said.
"I thought to myself, 'This is not good,'" Slater said.
After Slater's visit, Brown called the workers who maintain his properties in the city and told them the trailers had to go, Leytham said.
Tenants were told they had to be out by noon Tuesday, according to one person who lived there.
Tuesday morning, workers hauled the trailers away and Brown reimbursed his tenants $1,500 each for the past three months' rent. Then they were gone.
"Some of them went to friends," Leytham said. "Others were helped to get into motels. All of them declined referrals to the Salvation Army."
v vBy Wednesday afternoon, all that remained of Brown's illegal mobile home park were two fences that shielded the trailers from public view. Brown and a small group of men busied themselves with cleaning up the outside of the stucco house before leaving in a pickup truck.
A handful of tenants remained in the house.
Leytham said she didn't know where the trailers were taken.
Now that the trailers are gone, the city's primary issue with Brown's property has been resolved, Slater said. The Sept. 8 hearing has been dropped.
But the case against him may not end there.
Brown installed the five trailers without getting the inspections and permits they required. He extended water and sewer to them without city permits, using a water line sized for a single-family home to supply more than a dozen people.
If not for Monday's visit by Slater, it's not clear how long Brown would have let the situation continue.
"We may have the ability to do something," said Thom Snelling, the city's growth and management director. His office oversees zoning and permitting.
Snelling said he will review the case with city attorneys.
"Having the evidence disappear throws a bit of a curve ball at us," he said.
Slater said the city has gotten complaints about the small motel Brown owns at 7908 N. Florida Ave. The motel backs up to the property that held the trailer park.
"We're going to take a look at that entire area up there," Slater said.
City Councilman Frank Reddick said the episode is a reminder that the city's code enforcement division remains too reactive.
"We shouldn't have to wait for anyone to make note of an issue before there's action," Reddick said. "They need to be more aggressive with the trailer parks. No one should have to live in filth."
Buckhorn said the situation on Stanley Street has amplified the need for more money and staff for code enforcement.
"We are looking at that option," Buckhorn said. "We were looking at it long before this. I would not be surprised if we don't add additional revenue to code enforcement and additional manpower."