Burning Down the House

After the closing of an apartment building for AIDS victims in Fort Lauderdale, the city's ability to oversee a multimillion-dollar, federally funded program is called into question

"That building is kind of a hellhole," says Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle. "It probably should be demolished."

Since 1995 about $750,000 in federal money has been pumped into that hellhole. That same year Sunshine Health Center purchased the building and its lot with a $646,000 grant from HOPWA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Numerous federal grants followed so that the building could be transformed into a comfortable apartment complex for AIDS sufferers and their families in need of housing. But despite this influx of cash, the building was occupied by Sunshine clients for less than three years -- from February 1996, to November of last year.

So what happened? Sunshine officials are not forthcoming, but city records indicate that mismanagement could have been a big problem. For example, playground equipment was purchased with $4342 worth of HOPWA funds and delivered to Sunshine's Pompano Beach offices in June 1997. But the equipment was never installed. J&R Home Repair was paid $2100 in HOPWA funds last year for two queen palm trees, a sabal palm, and 50 bags of redwood-chip mulch, among other landscaping materials. But there is no evidence that anyone made use of these materials at 637 SW 15th Avenue. Former residents confirm that no palm tree was ever planted, no garden ever mulched. George's Asphalt Service was paid $5584 in HOPWA money to remove speed bumps from the parking lot to prepare for repaving. But the company was never paid to repave; the parking lot now looks like it was shelled by mortar fire.

Dale Gibson faces the unenviable task of leading the much-maligned Sunshine Health Center back to financial solvency
Melissa Jones
Dale Gibson faces the unenviable task of leading the much-maligned Sunshine Health Center back to financial solvency
Fort Lauderdale assistant city manager Pete Witschen oversaw the eight-month investigation of Kathryn Malie
Melissa Jones
Fort Lauderdale assistant city manager Pete Witschen oversaw the eight-month investigation of Kathryn Malie

Former residents of the SW 15th Avenue facility tell stories of squalor, rampant drug use, and negligence on the part of Sunshine officials. Carmela Warren, who lived in apartment 33 for a year with her infant daughter, says hot water was scarce and the wall in her daughter's bedroom was covered with mildew. "My daughter [couldn't] even sleep in her room because I [was] afraid of her picking up some kind of bacteria," she recalls. "I had neighbors who didn't have refrigerators or stoves."

Madeline Morgan, who lived in the apartment complex with her three children, claims that drug dealers often conducted business on the property. "Basically everybody in the building was on drugs," she says, adding that she saw no evidence that Sunshine's management was concerned about the illegal activities. "They really didn't care what went on there," she says. "All they wanted was the rent money."

A constantly changing staff of administrators operated the housing facility for Sunshine, which began in 1964 as a health clinic serving the needs of migrant workers in the Pompano Beach area. Dale Gibson, the group's executive director, came on staff just as the housing program was disintegrating. "I don't know much about what's happening with that [program]," he says, noting that his focus has been on the health clinic. "That's not really something I have much information about at all."

Despite staff turnover Sunshine's board of directors is ultimately accountable for the organization. As stated in the group's bylaws, the board's job is to "manage the affairs of Sunshine." On the board are several prominent Broward County citizens, including Jasmin Shirley Moore, who is sometimes referred to as the "Queen of AIDS" and is the former wife of Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Carlton Moore. Hazel Armbrister, another board member, is a retired teacher who ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 1998.

Moore, who answered questions on behalf of Sunshine, told New Times that the residents were the problem. Every time a tenant moved out of the complex, she said, the apartment was gutted -- even air conditioning units and ceiling fans disappeared. Drug use and other criminal activities, she added, were not a problem at the facility. "During our time we didn't have that kind of stuff going on," Moore said. "It was a great place."

Despite Sunshine's claims to the contrary, Morgan, Warren, and other residents became so fed up with their living conditions that they formed a tenant's association in 1997 and enlisted the help of Legal Aid Service of Broward County. According to a list of problems drawn up by the association and hand-delivered to board chair Lula Myers and Thomas Dawson, who was executive director of Sunshine at the time: Toilets didn't flush in some apartments; many units were ant- and/ or roach-infested; locks on windows were broken; and most of the washers and dryers in the laundry room were inoperable.

The residents weren't the only ones concerned about the SW 15th Avenue facility. Estelle Abrams, a detective on the Fort Lauderdale code-enforcement team, was aware of the infusion of government funds and recalls driving by the building on an almost daily basis, wondering when conditions would improve. One apartment, she recalls, had a malfunctioning oven that shot sparks whenever it was turned on. "Instead of giving them a new oven, Sunshine gave them a fire extinguisher so they can shoot the sparks out," Abrams says. She notes that the only work permit that was granted for renovations was for the installation of an air conditioner -- in the administrative office. "You have no idea the crackerjack way they went in there," she says.

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