Bed bugs. Roaches. Leaky plumbing. Mold. Dry rot. Defective appliances. These are some of the conditions that residents of Bayside Villas in Palmetto endure.
“The conditions here are criminal and deplorable. It is cruel and inhumane,” resident Barbara Williams, 67, told Herald reporter Claire Aronson in Sunday’s In Depth article.
Some residents also have to deal with eviction notices after their longtime leases were not renewed. Decades of faithful, timely payments account for little here. Tenant complaints about complex management and inadequate repairs are rejected. Renters claim retribution and discrimination are in play here. The owner of the complex, Robert Goodman, denies any retribution or intimidation.
The Herald’s reports have caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who told local officials Wednesday that his staff is “proactively” looking into the situation at Bayside Villas.
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The housing units once fell under a federal program that provides financial assistance to apartment complex owners with a stipulation that they maintain safe, affordable rental units for low and very low income tenants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency moved to foreclose on the property for noncompliance with loan requirements, but the former owners sold the 44-unit complex in 2013 and conditions worsened.
The new owners did not finance the purchase through the federal government’s rural rental housing and rental assistance programs, but do accept USDA and Section 8 vouchers from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, putting the complex under the Fair Housing Act.
Manatee County does not currently inspect apartments, leaving tenants at the mercy of landlords. But officials are presently developing a program called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines fair housing as protecting “people from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and familial status.”
HUD is responsible for processing fair housing complaints and educating the public about fair housing law. States and local governments that receive federal funding are required to affirmatively further fair housing.
Manatee County’s old fair housing plans, developed in 2005 and 2010, did not hold the county as accountable as HUD intends. The county’s new plan is required in order to acquire Community Development Block Grants, vital to infrastructure, homeowner rehabilitation, public facilities improvements and public service projects. Projects are selected based on public input.
On fair housing, Brian Sullivan, supervisory public affairs specialist for HUD in Washington, D.C., told the Herald: “There were some rules around this that date back many years that were unevenly applied across the country. Local communities have got to, and really have for many years, do an analysis of their housing market and identify obstacles to fair housing choice.”
Manatee County plans to include achievable goals designed to make an impact. Officials are now checking out how other jurisdictions regulate rental properties. Daytona Beach requires property owners to register rental units, obtain a rental license and pass a biennial inspection. The ordinance “provides for enforcement, suspension, or revocation of license.” Some other ordinances are just as tough.
County Commissioner Charles Smith minces no words in declaring discrimination is occurring in housing here — against whites, blacks and Latinos. And he didn’t hold back on Bayside Villas: “There is an organized effort that if you complain, you get evicted, so be happy with what you have. This is one of the worst cases of civil rights violations that I’ve seen.”
The high number of complaints from Bayside Villas residents merits an investigation by Rubio and others. And Manatee County needs a strong ordinance to protect the disadvantaged and to send a tough message to landlords that foul living conditions are unacceptable.