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If there's a lesson to be gleaned from Gloria Thomas' two-year wrangle with Fort Lauderdale's code-enforcement department, it's that having your heart in the right place isn't enough. Even if you want to help others, you'll still have to navigate the morass of city bureaucracy.
Thomas had good intentions when she bought her building at 1227 Sistrunk Blvd. in October 1997, for $130,000. She envisioned her wedding business in the front, where the large plate glass window would offer good exposure, and a social service agency occupying the rest of the building. She had big plans to teach people computer and office skills, establish a prison ministry, and found a drug rehab program. All she had to do was look around her property to see the need. "You see people around here laying on the ground, sleeping on the benches, hanging around," she says. "There's so much we could do."
There would be plenty of room for all of it. The two-story building, built in 1959, has 3300 square feet of office space on the ground floor and five one-bedroom apartments upstairs.
And Thomas certainly has the background. Once a mother of two on welfare in Philadelphia, she earned a college degree in counseling with the help of Opportunities Industrialization Centers, a 35-year-old training program that operates in 35 states. In fact, she thinks her building would be perfect for a new Broward OIC program, an idea OIC officials are considering. The organization already has programs in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. "The need [in Broward] is very great," says Rev. Maurice Dawkins, chairman of the board for OIC in South Florida. "What you have is people falling through the safety net."
But two years after she bought it, Thomas' building is a mess. One of the front windows is shattered and boarded up. The paint is peeling. Inside is a jumble of floral shop equipment and flower arrangements, furniture, and junk. There's an old piano near the front door, a couple of pool tables in the back, and rooms piled high with clothes, tires, small appliances, and everything else one tends to accumulate in life. "As you can see I never throw anything out," says Thomas.
Upstairs the apartments are empty, the occupants forced to move because the building doesn't meet code. In one apartment, clothes and furniture are strewn around as if whoever lived there had to leave in a hurry.
The rough condition of the building mirrors its neighborhood. Immediately to the east is a private club where the parking lot is bustling with people in the middle of a recent Thursday afternoon. A steady stream of cars pulls in and then backs out onto Sistrunk. Across the street is a liquor store with bars on the windows. Outside the liquor store, a handful of men sit on the steps taking pulls from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Thomas says drug dealers and prostitutes are fond of the alley between her property and the private club. "I'm always cleaning up beer cans, and you should see all the condoms I find there," she says.
Her dream of helping others is still alive, though it's not very well. The city thinks Thomas' building is unsafe and won't allow her to occupy it. So it's basically a big, expensive storage unit. With the monthly mortgage and insurance bills piling up at the rate of $20,000 a year, Thomas can't afford another place to put her stuff. Her aspirations on hold, she's taken a job as a security guard at a gated community in Coral Springs.
Her troubles began two days after she closed on the building, when code-enforcement officers came by for an inspection and found a laundry list of problems, some small and some not. An improperly installed air conditioner caught their attention, as did doors, windows, and a pay phone that had been put in without a permit.
More troublesome were problems with the wiring, plumbing, and the ceiling that could make the place a fire hazard, says Bob Pignataro, an inspector with the city's Fire, Rescue and Building Department. "Some of these are life-threatening."
Thomas can't blame the city for all her woes. She didn't do her homework when she bought the place. Had she checked with the city or had the building inspected before the purchase, she would have learned that a lot of the work done by the previous owner was done without permits and didn't meet code.
"The guy I bought the building off of, he said he had everything done in the building that needed to be done," she says now. "I took him at his word. He said nothing is wrong with this building except cosmetic things like painting. I know it's my fault."
In the two years since, Thomas has made a sincere effort to get the building in order. At the city's behest, her son took down a fence that surrounded the property and cleaned up the parking lot. She hired an architect to come up with plans for renovations that would bring the building into compliance. She hired a general contractor to do the work and even pulled the necessary permits.