UPDATED: 03/18/20 4:40 p.m.
Shirley Dortch was just getting comfortable in her place at Tampa Park Apartments. She moved in last August with the hope of enjoying retirement near family who live in units close to hers. But now they all have to move out by November 1, the complex in Ybor City has been sold.
"We're heartbroken," Shirley tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay as she looks around her humble living room, "I’m 68 years old, so moving won’t be easy for me. We don't know what to do or if we'll get help to move out."
Her boyfriend of four years, 59-year-old Otis Thomas, lives with her. He is also distraught, standing next to Shirley in his work clothes with his hand on her chair.
Last week, as coronavirus started to shake up the daily lives of everyone in Tampa Bay, regardless of income, Creative Loafing Tampa contacted the Tampa Park Apartments leasing office to see if residents would be given any relief from the November 1 eviction date. The office said that the eviction date would not change in the face of concern surrounding novel coronavirus.
But on Wednesday, Hillsborough County announced the suspension all evictions, effective immediately.
On Tuesday, FlaPol reported that "Rep. Shevrin Jones is asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend evictions and utility shut-offs throughout the state as residents continue dealing with the economic effects of the new coronavirus."
"We've always gone to church," Otis says, "We have to know the Lord will help us through this."
Otis is a handyman and receives disability from a motorcycle crash in 1993. Between his income and Shirley's retirement money, they make about $1,900 a month. Six hundred of that goes to rent for their one bedroom apartment.
"We can't afford these other places around here," says Shirley. On February 20, she and Otis found a pink note on their door that read, "We need to see you in the Tampa Park Rental Office immediately for the following reasons: Status of Your Lease." They met with property manager Yolanda Amos who broke the news to them. When Shirley asked if there would be any help finding a new place they were told, "We'll look into it."
Shirley’s sister Beatrice, who has already paid $150 in application fees for other apartments, says she asked Tampa Park’s Leasing Manager Richard Debert about receiving aid to move out. Debert told her that is not going to be possible. Debert was not reachable by phone, and Amos said, “No comment. We don’t know what’s going on at the rental office, only the owner does.”
In February, The Tampa Bay Times reported that the buyer of the complex is currently unknown. The current owner of the complex is the Lily White Security Benefit Association, which is led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin publisher Sybil Kay Andrews. She did not respond to request for comment.
About 1,200 people in 370 units are being told to move out of Tampa Park Apartments. Thirty-three tenants will receive aid in finding a new home due to their Section 8 housing status. The rest seem left to fend for themselves. Shirley paid her March rent, but other residents who wish to remain anonymous are withholding their rent until they know more about the situation. They say that they need their rent money to be able to afford moving out.
The mystery surrounding the sale makes it worse for Shirley.
“There are no answers for us,” she says. “I at least want to know why, and who I should talk to about making things right.”
Shirley’s neighbor Beverly Goodson, 62, feels similarly frustrated. She sells purses wholesale, and being near downtown Tampa is good for her business.
“All of my clients are in this area and being near them is important for me,” Goodson says, “And they took down all these other cheap apartments around here so there’s nowhere else to go.”
The story of Tampa Park Apartments is just one in a string of destruction of affordable housing in Tampa.
In 2015, 300 residents of Tampa Presbyterian Village apartments had to move out in order to make more room for I-275. They were compensated through the federal Uniform Relocation Act of 1970, which assisted the families with funds and guidance in finding a new place to live.
In 2017, the North Boulevard Homes were demolished, with some residents saying they felt “pushed out” for the sake of new apartments and condos. This was part of the multi-million dollar project called the West River Redevelopment plan, which calls for redeveloping the 120-acre area of land within the borders of I-275, Columbus Avenue, Rome Avenue and the Hillsborough River; 820 apartments were removed, and 1,700 tenants were assigned new homes through the Tampa Housing Authority.
During the demolition, former North Boulevard Homes tenant Carlton Lofton said, “The majority of the people that have been relocated from this area in West Tampa, they’ll never get the chance to come back here.” As of March of this year, a majority of the area is still empty grass lots, with a small portion being developed into new apartments.
Robles Park Village, a public housing project located in Tampa Heights, is soon to be demolished. Some plans call for the redevelopment before the end of the year, after Zion, a forgotten African-American cemetery, was discovered underneath the property.
In Tampa Park Apartments, some families are beginning to pack up their belongings and look for other places. Some are going to stay with family in other states because they don’t want to pay rent at Tampa Park anymore. Shirley and Otis are contemplating moving to a trailer in Thonotosassa, they heard it’s quiet out there. Otis grew up just outside of Atlanta working on farms, he thinks there might be some new work he can do if he’s living outside of the city.
Shirley wants peace and a steady place to live during her retirement. They’re not sure if they’ll still be able to live near family, but right now their priority is finding somewhere they can afford within the next eight months.
“They keep pushing people like us further and further away,” Shirley says, “All so they can probably build some fancy place we can't afford on top of where we used to live.”