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Unfit for occupancy

Pointing to safety violations and health hazards at the 200-unit Amberwood Apartments complex, officials order the eviction Thursday of all tenants.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Stephanie Bianchini, an Amberwood Apartments resident under house arrest, weeps as she makes a phone call trying to find a new place to live after the complex was ordered closed Thursday. She got court approval to stay with a relative.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002


Clarification
In a series of articles published in the St. Petersburg Times, certain apartment complexes, including Amberwood Apartments, were identified as being owned by Steven S. Green, personally. However, these properties are or were owned solely by corporations in which Mr. Green is a shareholder, and were not owned by Mr. Green, personally.
TAMPA -- The owner of the Amberwood Apartments had seven days to fix electrical, structural and leakage problems at the sprawling north Tampa complex.

But when the deadline arrived Thursday, Steven Green had not made enough repairs to satisfy code inspectors and the fire marshal's office.

Citing safety violations and health hazards, officials ordered dozens of residents to vacate their apartments Thursday afternoon. No one would be permitted to sleep at the 200-unit complex, and belongings had to be removed by Monday, when the rental office would padlock the doors.

"We're shutting this down so there's not a catastrophic loss of life," said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

The worst apartments had ceilings falling in, unstable balcony supports, overloaded breakers, sewage stains and mildewed walls. One vacant apartment in the Oak Rose Lane complex had a large pile of trash on the unfinished floor and a bathroom ceiling with no paneling.

One of the buildings on the property was boarded up and condemned after an electrical fire in March. Green owes $9,000 for violations on that building, said county code enforcement chief Don Shea. Each day the violations remain, another $100 in fines is levied.

Meanwhile, residents scrambled Thursday to find somewhere to sleep. Many hurriedly rented U-Hauls. Others left their furniture behind.

"It's a very, very profoundly sad day to see people's lives being destroyed this way," Shea said.

Green, reached at his office in Yonkers, New York, disputed that the apartments were in bad condition.

"We're deeply upset at the situation at Amberwood," said Green, 37. "We spent so much time, so much energy, so much money at that property over the past year and a half -- $2.5-million in improvements."

The scrutiny of Amberwood began a week ago, when a resident complained to the Fire Department that an electrical outlet was sparking. Fire officials noticed substandard conditions and summoned county inspectors.

Green acknowledged some improvements are in order.

"Code enforcement . . . found defective stucco and metal that supports the balconies," but it was impossible to fix everything in seven days, he said. "To have about everything put under a microscope at one time renders it overwhelming."

Green came to Tampa from his native New York several years ago and quickly entered the real estate market. In the last few years, he has purchased eight rental properties. Shea said his office has received complaints from residents at every one of them since the situation at Amberwood Apartments became public last week.

They will all be investigated, he said.

"As soon as our resources are recovered from Amberwood, we will respond to the complaints," Shea said.

Green said there are "no other major violations" at his other properties.

But similar allegations in New York point to a troubled past in his real estate dealings. Green has racked up $2.3-million in fines for housing maintenance violations at 21 properties, said Kim Brown, spokeswoman for New York City's Department of Housing and Preservation.

The violations occurred between 1986 and 2000, Brown said. The department has been able to collect only several thousand dollars from Green.

"It was for failure to provide heat, water to residents or a combination of any other code violations," Brown said.

Green, who said he splits his time between Tampa and Yonkers, disputes those figures.

"Those are violations on properties that I no longer own, that don't relate to me or have any effect on me," he said. He currently owns only two properties in New York, he said, and they are free of violations.

When in Tampa, Green lives in a house on Delaware Avenue purchased in 2000 for $1.4-million, according to county records.

The county's citation of Amberwood means Green must appear before the code enforcement board, which could assess fines up to $1,000 a day, said Dexter Barge, manager of code enforcement.

Ron Mason stood outside his Amberwood apartment Thursday and waited for officials to tell him to leave his home. He said he learned from inspectors earlier in the day that his breaker box was missing a 30-watt breaker.

"They have electrical tape instead," said Mason, 28. But Mason wouldn't want to stay even if he could.

"It ain't worth it," he said. "I've been embarrassed by this place."

Bryant Boyd, a butcher, said one of his outlets is broken and the vent in the bathroom doesn't work. He fretted about finding a new apartment.

"I'm broke," said Boyd, 27, who supports a newborn and a girlfriend. "I don't get paid till Wednesday."

Rent at Amberwood was $649 plus water and garbage fees, Boyd said. He said he had already paid rent for May and wanted his money back.

Green said he couldn't speak to those concerns Thursday.

"I honestly don't know about individual cases at this point," he said.

Shea said that although Green is up north, he has not been out of touch during the controversy.

"He's been calling me," Shea said. "He thinks he's done great services for our community in providing housing to poor people."

-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at 226-3383.

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