Tampa’s ‘crime-free’ housing program is under federal investigation, but the city is still defending it

DOJ is looking into crime-free, which has been reworked and rebranded under a new moniker, ‘SAFE'

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click to enlarge Mayor Jane Castor speaks at a last-minute press conference outside Rich House in Tampa, Florida on April 29, 2022. - Screengrab via City of Tampa/YouTube
Screengrab via City of Tampa/YouTube
Mayor Jane Castor speaks at a last-minute press conference outside Rich House in Tampa, Florida on April 29, 2022.

Today, the City of Tampa announced that it is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for its "crime free multi-housing" program. Within the announcement, the city once again defended the controversial project, which came under fire when a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that a large percentage of renters flagged for eviction were Black.

"The U.S. Department of Justice has initiated an investigation of the old Crime Free initiative to ensure that that program did not violate the Fair Housing Act by making unavailable or denying housing units," the city wrote in a press release today.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination by providers of housing.

Under the crime free program, 90% of around 1,100 renters flagged for eviction since 2013 were Black, the Times found. While TPD claimed the program was made to target serious crimes, some renters—including entire families who did not commit any crimes—were at times evicted because a housemate had been arrested for panhandling and petty theft.

A Yale professor and author of 'How Fascism Works' reviewed the program's educational material and told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the program used both fascist language and unfortunate, racially-loaded stereotypes.  Files obtained by CL this month revealed more racially biased language in the program.

In December of 2021—despite Mayor Jane Castor digging her heels in and defending the program in the face of several legal and civil rights groups asking for it to end—interim police chief Butch Delgado changed the program to what TPD said is a less intrusive model called "SAFE".

"The Justice Department has acknowledged that the City of Tampa terminated the Crime Free initiative before its review began, and to date the city has not been notified of the results of the Justice Department’s review. The Tampa Police Department has never participated in evictions," the city wrote, referencing DOJ' review that started in December of 2021.

On its face, SAFE seems to remove some of the worst aspects of the former program and sever itself from the national "crime free" model. Under SAFE, TPD says it no longer communicates directly with landlords to tell them when a tenant has committed a crime—a move under crime free multi-housing that used to lead directly to evictions. Instead, TPD says the program focuses on education and training on numerous public safety best practices.
Despite switching to this new model, the outcry from the community about crime-free multi-housing, and being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for the program, the city defended it today via the press release and press conference held by Mayor Jane Castor.

Castor spoke up for the program during the last minute presser today, with TPD officers and members of the Tampa Housing Authority backing her up, along with a community member that CL found was shuttled by TPD to speak in favor of crime free multi-housing last year.

When asked by a reporter how this investigation came to pass, Castor claimed that the city initiated it.

"The city asked HUD [Housing and Urban Development] we wrote a letter to HUD, asking them to review our previous program, and the new program as well," Castor claimed. "And then we received a letter from DOJ, under which HUD participates and they, uh, sent us a letter."

Ten days ago, CL submitted a public records request about communications between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Tampa. The request has not been fulfilled.
Castor also once again claimed that the media was wrong in its reporting of the crime free multi-housing story, a sentiment that was backed up by the city's press release.

"A 2019 analysis showed that apartment complexes who opted to participate in the citywide program had a 34-37 percent drop in crime, versus a 21-23 percent drop for non-participating apartments," the city wrote. "Some complexes saw crime decrease as much as 86 percent. In September, some media outlets incorrectly implied hundreds of tenants had been evicted because landlords were notified of tenants' arrests through that program."

The City of Tampa's press release said the city attorney's office looked at 529 notices of arrest provided to property managers participating in that program over the past five years and cross-checked them to public eviction records. Of the 529 notifications, only eight evictions were filed and only four were based on criminal activity and non-payment of rent.

But, as the Times pointed out, the city's analysis, by going back only five years, did not include the first three years of the program. The program also evicted entire families when a single person allegedly committed a crime, including children and other family members, who did not have their names on the lease.

The city's communication director did not respond immediately to a phone call about the city's statement today.

“The bottom line is that the City of Tampa believes firmly that every resident, regardless of income level or address, deserves to feel safe, and partnerships like SAFE help prevent crime,” Mayor Jane Castor said in the press release, which claimed that, “No major city in Florida has a lower crime rate than Tampa."

"We will never stop standing up for crime victims, including residents victimized by criminal activity in their neighborhoods," she added.

This is the second time Castor has come under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice for racially-biased programs that she defended over and over again. The first time was when she was police chief and had oversaw the controversial "biking while Black" program, which targeted Black bicyclists for arrest. She stood by that program until her mayoral campaign was ramping up, when she admitted some of the aspects of it were wrong.

Castor and Tampa's current police chief Mary O'Connor oversaw both crime free multi-housing and "biking while Black."

 Watch video from the press conference below.

About The Author

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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