Residents being evicted from Holly Court Apartments in North Tampa say that what once felt like a home now seems like a jail.
A black security gate surrounds the property. Inside, tall metal poles jut up toward the sky between the gray apartments. Cameras point in every direction from each pole, which line the center of the property. Signs posted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) let residents and visitors know that the property is under 24 hour video surveillance and that law enforcement has "full access" to the cameras.
But inside the apartments, what the sheriff can't see through cameras is how disturbing residents' lives have been for two months now.
One resident sent Creative Loafing Tampa Bay video showing dirt coming out of their faucet water, which runs off a well on the property. They've had to shower in the dirt water for months, they say, and drink bottled water instead of being able to use the tap. The dirt water started around the same time that Palm Communities LLC took over the property in November, they said.
Since then, representatives from the company have come to the property several times accompanied by HCSO deputies. Six people have been evicted at Holly Court since November, Hillsborough County Court records show. During this time is when the gates and new surveillance system were installed.
"They showed up, put bars around our houses, then all of a sudden say, 'get out' with hardly any notice," said Valerie Smith, a tenant who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation from the landlords, and possibly losing her security deposit, which she needs to find new housing.
She, along with several other tenants in the 33-unit complex, many disabled and elderly, now face an uncertain future, after they were led to believe things were stabilizing.
Smith said that while the property managers initially seemed invested in making the apartments safer, on New Year's Eve, they showed up with HCSO again, this time to serve 30-day notices of eviction to several of the remaining tenants. At the end of January, they have to be out. Bay News 9 first reported on the mass evictions earlier this week, focusing on the experience of a disabled veteran who lives at Holly Court.
"They don't want us talking to anyone about it after Bay News 9 showed up with their cameras and were talking to people, that's why they barely let you around here," Smith said.
The property management company did make it difficult for this CL reporter to speak with residents.
"I'm looking for a trailer for me and my family to live in now, but the only thing we can find that's the same price is in Seffner."
As I pulled up to the property and called to the tenants inside to see if they wanted to speak with me, a tenant approached the gate and said "I'll let you in." A property manager jumped out of his car to let me know I was trespassing, and that HCSO is keeping an eye on the property. The tenant backed away. Even after seeing my press credentials, the manager said that I'd have to talk to residents off the property. The tenants motioned to me to go around to the other side of the apartments, and that's when Smith came out and spoke with me across the street.
"I'm looking for a trailer for me and my family to live in now, but the only thing we can find that's the same price is in Seffner," Smith told CL. "That'd be hours on the bus for me each day, because I work in Tampa and I don't drive."
She currently pays $850 a month at Holly Court; it's all her family can afford. When looking at trailer rental prices in Tampa, she couldn't find any that were big enough for her family that she can afford.
In the Tampa Metro Area, rent went up 24% last year (the highest in the nation); two weeks ago, Zillow named Tampa the "hottest" housing market in the U.S. The City of Tampa celebrated on social media, but left out the fact that in the Tampa metro, rents skyrocketed last year and are expected to rise again in 2022.
HCSO's public information officer told CL Tampa Bay that the property manager of Holly Court Apartments contacted them last December, expressing concerns about what the manager claimed to be drug activity and prostitution happening at the property.
"Several members of HCSO made proactive attempts to help make this community safer," HCSO wrote. "They took the time to meet with the property's new owner to share ideas such as better lighting and parking pass authorization to help deter criminal activity in the parking lot. Deputies met with neighbors as well to address their complaints and help them feel secure, as we do with many communities throughout Hillsborough County."
HCSO said that while cameras already existed on the property before, Palm Communities LLC requested the upgraded camera system that exists now. The PIO said HCSO did not have any documentation or record of interactions between Holly Court management and the sheriff.
In a post about the evictions, the Tampa Tenants Union (TTU) said it plans to stand by the residents at Holly Court apartments as the evictions unfold.
"Many are elderly, disabled, and live on fixed incomes and are unable to move," TTU wrote. "Tampa Tenants Union is ready to stand with them and fight for justice!"