Trouble in gated Tampa 'paradise'

The golf course community has a growing number of renters - and guards.

COURTESY : St. Petersburg Times
Published September 17, 2006

TAMPA - The promise of a life of luxury and security attracted Sam and B.J. Harris to Heritage Isles four years ago.

From its championship golf course with waterborne practice targets to a 10,000-square-foot clubhouse with swimming pool and giant water slide, this gated New Tampa community seemed the perfect place to raise two children.

"I wake up in paradise," said mortgage company manager Sam Harris, whose home overlooks a pond and the golf course.

But an armed guard patrols this paradise, strolling many nights beneath towering palm trees and maturing oaks, on the lookout for vandals, burglars and drug users.

Crime, by placid New Tampa standards, is a tad high. Renters, usually the minority in these new subdivisions, are growing almost as numerous as homeowners.

"I know real estate agents who will not do business in Heritage Isles," said Bonnie Oberlin, a Realtor who lives in this community off Cross Creek Boulevard. "We have a serious situation here."

The state of Heritage Isles illustrates how a downturn in the real estate market can bring unwanted results even in fashionable communities. Neighborhoods in eastern Hillsborough and South Tampa are seeing similar trends. When housing sales were booming, investors snatched up all they could. Then rising interest rates and high prices put a brake on sales, producing a glut that caused owners to rent out their homes.

Only 44 percent of Heritage Isles households have homestead exemptions, suggesting the homeowner resides in the home, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. That compares to 81 percent in nearby Arbor Greene and 79 percent in Hunter's Green. Countywide, 71 percent of homes are occupied by homeowners.

"Good God," Barbara Adams, head of the Heritage Isles neighborhood watch, said of the high rental rate. "I'm very disappointed at that figure."

No one can say for sure if a growing number of renters is the root of Heritage Isles' sporadic crime. But the statistics, while not high by city standards, surpass those in the neighboring communities. According to the Tampa Police Department, during a three-year period beginning in 2003, Heritage Isles' roughly 900 homes reported 44 burglaries while Arbor Greene, with about 1,200 homes, had 10.

One difference between Heritage Isles and its neighbors is that the roads in Heritage Isles are public, while homeowners in Arbor Greene and Hunter's Green own their roads and can restrict access. The guards who staff Heritage Isles' gatehouse are largely for show. Legally, they cannot stop anyone from driving past. The cost of this illusion of security: $100,000 a year, paid through community development district taxes. For an added measure of protection, residents pay about $1,400 a week for an off-duty Tampa police officer to patrol the grounds.