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Belmont Heights clashes on trash

Its management company wants to replace trash cans with community bins.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published January 25, 2007


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TAMPA - Square blue trash cans line the back porches in Belmont Heights Estates like sentinels.

They are symbolic guards, people who live in this low-income neighborhood say. They keep trash contained, and in this community, surrounded by rundown homes, notorious bars and well-policed street corners, many think litter could chip away at the facade and breed crime.

So when Belmont Heights' management company proposed replacing everyone's individual trash cans with compactors or community trash bins, some residents flashed back to the notorious, blighted projects that existed here before they were torn down for Belmont Heights.

"The projects did have Dumpsters where you'd take your garbage ... and the result of that was filth around the Dumpsters," said Constance Shakir, 80. "Animals would be around. Sometimes you'd see rats."

Shakir worked in an office at the old College Hill Homes public housing complex. Across the street was a sister complex, Ponce de Leon Court. She remembers the violence and hopelessness in both. It was a place where shootings, stabbings and robbery rose by more than 20 percent in the late 1990s. In the mid '90s, babies died at a rate 250 percent higher than in the rest of Hillsborough County.

Those were problems that had little to do with trash, but overflowing trash bins and the smells that lingered only reinforced the area's bad reputation, residents said. In contrast, residents seem to have few complaints at Belmont Heights, which has 860 homes and opened in 2002.

"It's clean," Shakir said. "When I moved in, it was quiet. It still is. It's clean and beautiful. A nice change from the projects."

She said she does her part and even uses bleach to wash out her trash can twice a month. She lives in Belmont Heights' senior village, where most of the residents are older or disabled.

"I don't want the Dumpster because I don't want to walk over there," said Luis Collazo, 66, a retired taxi driver, pointing to where he's heard a trash bin would go.

He points to a neighbor's home. "This lady here, she can't walk but maybe from here to that motorcycle over there."

Michaels Development Company is proposing the changes. It built the $32.5-million Belmont Heights Estates with help from the city, the Tampa Housing Authority and federal housing dollars.

The New Jersey company also oversees management, and rising property tax and insurance rates and a decline in federal subsidies are prompting cost-cutting, said Steve Anderson, attorney for Michaels Development.

Twice-a-week trash pickup costs about $25 a month per home.

The company would like to save about $100,000 a year, and Anderson said it won't pass the cost on to its renters, many of whom rely on subsidies. Saving on trash pickup is better than cutting remedial education and job and computer training programs in Belmont Heights, Anderson said.

But for Clara Williams, 67, who has trouble walking and suffers from complications from open-heart and appendix surgeries, curbside pickup is essential.

"Why don't they leave it like it is?" she asked.

If the company switches to trash bins or compactors, Anderson said, elderly and disabled residents would have something similar to their existing service.

To make a switch, Michaels needs the city's blessing. Both the Solid Waste Department and Tampa Housing Authority directors say they are neutral on the proposal, though both want residents to buy into any changes.

None of the affordable housing managed by the Tampa Housing Authority has curbside trash pickup, director Jerome Ryans said. But he said he understands residents' concerns.

"I don't want to do anything over there that would take away from the integrity of the project," he said.

City Council member Frank Reddick doesn't want to see trash bins in Belmont Heights: "It would not look good, and right now it's very clean with residents having their own private container." Reddick said trash bins invite illegal dumping and will make the neighborhood more blighted.

Anderson said that's the last thing Michaels Development wants, and the company won't act until the city provides more input. If Reddick and others want to keep trash pickup, he said, they need to help propose a solution.

Michaels is "not going to do anything that will lead to the return of the old conditions or get close to that," Anderson said. "Nobody likes change. ... If we don't change to compactors or other central collection, we're going to have to find some other way to reduce costs or we're going to have to reduce services."

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 00:52:57]


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