‘Renting while Black’: Civil rights groups say reforms to Tampa’s crime-free housing program are not enough

The Hillsborough NAACP wants a full civil rights investigation.

click to enlarge Tampa Mayor Jane Castor inside City Hall on Feb. 23, 2020. - cityoftampa/Flickr
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor inside City Hall on Feb. 23, 2020.

On Saturday, Mayor Jane Castor announced reforms to the city’s controversial crime-free multi-housing program, which flagged Black renters for eviction and has sparked concern across the country. The announcement came after the mayor had previously doubled down on the program following the Tampa Bay Times investigation into its effect on the Black community.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say that the reforms are not enough.

“This city continues to treat African American people as though they’re second class citizens with no rights,” Yvette Lewis, ​​President of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

During an NAACP meeting last week, Lewis called the crime-free multi-housing program “Renting while Black." She told CL the name is a nod to “Biking While Black,” a controversial program that targeted Black bikers during Castor’s tenure as police chief. 

“It sickens my stomach and it’s a shame before God,” Lewis adds. “The program needs to end, and what about apologies and compensation for all of those families whose lives were ruined?”

Last week, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, as part of a national coalition, sent a letter to Mayor Castor and Tampa City Council calling for an end to the crime-free multi-housing program. Lewis feels like their demands have been ignored, in lieu of reforms that do not fix the way Black people are treated in Tampa. 

“Everyone deserves to live in a safe neighborhood, regardless of their economic status,” an email from Castor’s office to CL reads. “We always evaluate and improve programs like this, and we are happy to review it further. But as violent crime spikes in cities across America, this is no time to stop effective collaborations between the community, law enforcement, and property managers that are making our city safer.”

However, according to the Times investigation, there’s no evidence that the program helps reduce violent crimes. Many of the families evicted were arrested for petty crimes—some were never even convicted.

Under the changes to the program, the city will only inform landlords about certain serious drug and violent felonies. A Tampa Police Department captain will also have to sign off on notices sent, and landlords will be notified only about arrests that happen on their properties.

Lewis says the NAACP office gets complaints every day about problems Black Tampeños face. From police harassment, to housing and other economic issues, Lewis says Black people, and poor people in general, are treated as “second-class citizens.” 

The Times investigation found that 90% of the 1,100 families flagged for eviction under the crime-free housing program were Black.

“None of us support violence in our communities,” Lewis says, “But you shouldn’t have to violate someone’s civil rights to address those problems. And this program by Mayor Castor operates like Black people are the only ones who commit crime.”

She points out that while crime also occurs in white communities, the program concentrated on Black neighborhoods. The program was evicting Black renters at the same time that Tampa was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for the “Biking While Black” program targeting bicyclists in the same communities.

In 2015, Castor defended “Biking While Black,” with an argument similar to her defense of “Renting while Black.”

"Many individuals receiving bike citations are involved in criminal activity," then-Police Chief Castor told the Times in 2015. "We have an obligation to address the individual issues that plague each neighborhood."

Much like the dehumanizing use of the word “plague” in this statement, the "Renting While Black" program refers to renters involved with crime as ‘weeds’, and encourages landlords to evict them.

Last week, Dr. Jason Stanley, Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works,” condemned Tampa’s program and said the language used in the presentation to landlords is “extraordinarily dehumanizing.”

Former Tampa city councilman Frank Reddick called for an investigation into the city of Tampa at the time of "Biking While Black," which determined that Black bicyclists were unjustly burdened. Lewis says that because of Tampa’s history of racist practices, "Renting While Black" is a sign that a more widespread civil rights investigation into the city needs to happen.

The coalition has taken a special interest in this case and said in a letter to Castor and City Council, "We reserve the right to take all appropriate legal action necessary to ensure that the program is ended."

The Florida ACLU’s Tampa chapter told CL that it’s glad the mayor has indicated that there are issues that need to be looked at, and addressed the proposed changes. We don’t think this program requires the Band-Aid she is proposing; it needs to be terminated and replaced with a program that reduces crime but doesn’t contribute to discrimination,” the group said in an email to CL. 

Representatives of both the local ACLU and NAACP chapters say that there is a meeting scheduled with Mayor Castor and members of the civil rights groups tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the situation. Lewis says Mayor Castor requested that only people from the groups who were involved in sending the demand letter be on the call. 

CL reached out to the mayor’s communications director about the stance of the civil rights groups and to confirm the details of the meeting the groups claim is occurring, but did not receive a response.

UPDATE: Story updated at 2:38 p.m. on September 23 to show that the civil rights and legal coalition reserves the right to take legal action if the program is not ended.

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Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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