Cars towed, locks changed on Tampa Park tenants struggling to find new homes

TAMPA — Demetric Freedom had just arrived back from his dialysis appointment when there was a knock at the door.

Outside was a maintenance crew and armed security guards. Ten minutes later, the locks on his one-bedroom apartment had been changed. All he managed to get out with were his wallet and phone charger, he said.

One day after a deadline to leave had expired, the landlord at Tampa Park Apartments changed the locks on apartments and towed tenants’ cars.

Some, like 71-year-old David Wilson, got home from work Monday to find a wooden board nailed over the keyhole. Wilson had planned to move out that evening, anyway.

Others like Freedom still haven’t found a place to live. The nonprofit hired by Hillsborough County to help residents relocate offered him places in Lakeland, Lutz and East Hillsborough, he said. But Freedom doesn’t own a car and needs to live close to a clinic where he can get dialysis, he said.

“I didn’t get the proper help I needed, ” he said. “I’m a patient on dialysis; I don’t’ know what else to do.”

Residents were informed in February that the complex was under contract for sale and given until Sunday to find somewhere new to live. Almost 350 families have found new homes. Most got help from Hillsborough County, up to $3,000 for deposits and first month’s rent.

Ybor City developer Darryl Shaw, who plans to buy about 12 of the complex’s 18 acres and build new housing there, has also paid moving costs and given $1,500 to families to help with moving expenses. Shaw is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., owner of the Tampa Bay Times.

But as of Monday, more than a dozen people remained at the complex. Several said they cannot find a place they can afford. Rents at Tampa Park are about $300 a month lower than Hillsborough County’s average.

Many expressed anger at the landlord for how they are being treated. Tampa Park is owned by a nonprofit group headed by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. The group is expected to recoup millions of dollars from the sale of the complex.

Tenant Wilson was still wearing a hardhat from his construction job when he arrived home at about 7 p.m. Monday. He said he had told the property management office he would be out that evening.

“I was trying to move; they didn’t give me no time,” Wilson said. “They wanted to make an example of me.”

Andrews has not responded to emails from the Tampa Bay Times about Tampa Park Apartments. Property manager Yolanda Amos declined to comment.

Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit at Bay Area Legal Services, previously said that locking residents out of their homes without a court order violates state law. The law firm offers free legal services to low-income families facing evictions and immigration issues.

The Tampa Police Department has declined to get involved in any dispute between landlord and tenant, calling it a civil matter.

Related: One month ahead of deadline, Tampa landlord locks out residents behind on their rent

Charlene Viverette, 53, woke up Tuesday to find her Nissan Altima had been towed. She said she is still recovering from the coronavirus and is waiting for a test Friday to confirm that she is clear.

It will cost her $200 to pick up her car, she said.

Viverette has lived at Tampa Park for about 16 months. She is on disability because of asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment but has been telling relocation staffers she needs a two-bedroom place because of all her medical equipment, she said.

“They’re going to put me out soon but I’m trying,” she said.

In between packing to move, Darlene Snell gives her great-granddaughter a kiss. A nonprofit found a motel room for her and her girls. [ CHRISTOPHER O’DONNELL | Times ]

Monday evening, Darlene Snell packed possessions into cardboard boxes while her two grandchildren and a great-grandchild played outside. She looks after the children most days and takes them to school.

Until Monday, she had no place to go. Solita’s House, the nonprofit hired by Hillsborough officials, paid for her and the children — ages 9, 4 and 1 — to stay in a hotel until they can find permanent housing.

“Last night I wanted to cry, but today, I said, ‘God will make a way.’”

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