In her staunch defense of Tampa's “crime free multi-housing” program last Friday, Mayor Jane Castor argued that the media got it wrong about two racially biased programs that she's come under federal investigation for.
But according to the facts, her arguments against the local media's reporting do not hold up.
Castor has been involved in two U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations in the past seven years: once for "biking while Black" and recently for the crime free multi-housing program also known as "renting while Black."
In the case of “biking while Black”—which occurred under Castor’s leadership as former TPD police chief—she eventually admitted that some aspects of the program, which targeted Black bicyclists for citations and arrests were wrong.
But despite acknowledging faults of that program, Mayor Castor has defended “crime free”, which targeted Black tenants for eviction for eight years before Tampa Police Department (TPD) changed the program to 'S.A.F.E.’
Last December, after TPD switched to S.A.F.E., the city got a letter from the DOJ saying the crime free program would be investigated to make sure it didn't violate the Fair Housing Act, which protects renters from discrimination.
At a press conference last Friday, Castor blamed some of the concern over the program on inaccuracies in the local media.
"There's been some big misconceptions about the old ‘crime free’ initiative because of media reports that implied that the ‘crime free’ program led to hundreds of arrests," Castor said. "That is inaccurate. It is false."
Here, it looks like Castor meant to say evictions, rather than arrests, because soon after she claimed that only eight evictions occurred under the program. In its investigation into the program, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the crime free multi-housing program led to hundreds of evictions.
There were also a number of other problems with the data.
"The majority of notices sent to landlords were for someone living with the registered tenant, so the names would not match in court documents," the Times published in defense of its reporting last year. "And in many cases, families moved out when they received a notice to vacate or were told to do so by the landlord — before the matter went to court."
Documents obtained by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay support the Times’ statement, with one note from TPD reading, "left on her own—no eviction." Another TPD document notes that a landlord chose non-renewal of the tenant's lease, rather than eviction. The city's data gathering did not address these types of situations.
Under “crime free,” if a person was even arrested for a crime, the whole household could be evicted, including the elderly, children and other family members.
According to the Times investigation, TPD officers recorded more than 300 tenants as “evicted” on a database which tracked the activity of the program.
The mayor's ongoing defense of the crime free program rings similar to her initial defense of "biking while Black."
“One thing I won’t stand for is undue criticism of my officers and our organization, and I vehemently disagree with the allegations that were made this past Sunday in one of our newspapers,” then-Chief Castor told city council in 2015.
Castor continued defending “biking while Black” for three years, until she came under scrutiny for the program during her mayoral run. In 2018, she told the Times, "the citations were a mistake."
DOJ's review of "biking while Black" found that the program unfairly targeted Black bicyclists and did nothing to reduce crime. Crime reduction was an argument that Castor made in support of the program.
Castor appointed amid controversy earlier this year.
Although Castor cited a reduction in serious crimes in defense of both of the operations, violent crimes are way up in Tampa.
And at the press conference last week, Castor made the argument that “crime free” only focused on serious crimes, in order to lower the violent crime rate.
"We personally believe that if an individual is arrested for a very serious crime like murder, rape, or drug trafficking, that that public information should be made available to their landlord..." Castor said.
But under crime free, tenants were flagged for eviction for crimes such as petty theft and panhandling.
Castor also claimed that TPD never participated in evictions.
But documents retrieved in a records request from the city show TPD discussing changing parts of the program in multiple meetings throughout 2018 and 2019, because TPD was concerned that the program was being "scrutinized" by civil rights groups ACLU and NAACP (TPD refers to NAACP as NWACP in the notes).
Notes from another meeting in December of 2019 said that TPD should also, "explore to remove the eviction verbiage based on police department actions."
At last Friday’s press conference, Castor said, "The City of Tampa nor the Tampa Police Department has ever participated in evicting anyone in the City of Tampa from a housing unit."
However, one of the aspects of the program that TPD reformed was the wording on their documents, which actively encouraged landlords to evict tenants.
"Once you receive this information, you are required to take immediate action through notice to cure, notice to vacate, or eviction,” a TPD document that informed landlords of a tenant's arrest read until the department changed it in 2018.
Tampa attorney and activist James Michael Shaw Jr. called the mayor out on Twitter for what he sees as lies pushed by Mayor Castor last Friday.
Shaw pointed to contradictions in the press conference, including Mayor Castor's recollection of how the investigation into “crime free” was initiated when she was asked by a reporter at the press conference.
Castor claimed that the city contacted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) via a letter, which triggered the investigation.
"She tries to make it sound like the DOJ was responding to the City's letter to HUD, saying that DOJ 'participates' with HUD," Shaw wrote.
Shaw pointed out that earlier in the presser, Castor said that the DOJ "initiated" the investigation, but that Castor suddenly changed her tune.
According to city records, a letter was sent to HUD by City Attorney Gina Grimes last year, but the letter vehemently defends “crime free” using talking points similar to the mayor's. The letter also welcomed HUD to review the new program, S.A.F.E., not the crime free program.
Another letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was sent on behalf of the city by Holland and Knight LLP last February. In the letter, Holland and Knight—which specializes in land use and zoning along with construction and aviation finance—once again defends the program using the city's data, which is missing crucial information.
It was during this time that TPD removed some of the language from the program that encouraged landlords to evict tenants who were simply arrested, not even convicted of a crime.
Connie Burton spoke out during “biking while Black” and again during the "crime free" fiasco. She’s a longtime Tampa civil rights activist who works as an organizer for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and has been involved in the NAACP and other social justice organizations.
“The mayor has left a trail of dishonesty,” Burton told CL. “And the people can see the way she has dealt with poor and working class Black people. It’s always dictatorial and punitive. These programs just made things worse for us.”
CL contacted the city with questions about the investigation last Friday and this week for a response to this story.
“We’re going to hold off on making further public comment until the DOJ investigation concludes,” Tampa’s Communication Director Adam Smith wrote in an email today.
The city also has not responded to CL's public records request sent 14 days ago (10 days before Castor's press conference) which asked for any communications between the DOJ and the City of Tampa from September of 2021 to April of this year.