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

According to HUD guidelines for the HOPWA program, grantees "must provide safe and sanitary housing that is in compliance with all applicable state and local housing codes, licensing requirements," and other regulations pertaining to building standards. Abrams continually cited the property for code violations, and when she got no response from Sunshine, she wrote letters to each board member. Lula Myers finally agreed to meet with Abrams at the property in June 1998. When Myers arrived she was issued a notice to appear in court and was criminally charged for 13 violations. Myers, who did not respond to inquiries for an interview for this article, pleaded no contest in August and was fined $1850.

Abrams was also in touch with Kathryn Malie, who was then interim director of Fort Lauderdale's housing and community development office. Abrams says the city didn't seem to care that grant dollars were apparently being squandered. "I tried the city for months from the fall of '97," she says, noting that when she threatened to charge Sunshine officials criminally, the city's response was, "Go ahead."

Malie counters that she was trying to work with Sunshine to get the property turned around. She says she met with residents, Sunshine board members, and Legal Aid representatives on several occasions. The code team, she believes, was only interested in putting people in jail. "Instead of trying to help people, they just kept trying to arrest them," she claims.

Can you say "boondoggle"? Seventy thousand dollars in taxpayer funds was spent to purchase this now-abandoned Hollywood home.
Melissa Jones
Can you say "boondoggle"? Seventy thousand dollars in taxpayer funds was spent to purchase this now-abandoned Hollywood home.

Even if Malie was making a good-faith effort to work with the folks at Sunshine, she wouldn't have been able to finish the job. At about the same time Myers was charged with code violations, Faye Outlaw was hired as director of Fort Lauderdale's housing and community development office. Two months later Sunshine's HOPWA funds for rental assistance were terminated. Soon thereafter the tenants at 637 SW 15th Avenue were relocated to other homes in Broward County, and the Sunshine facility was boarded shut. An FBI investigation of Sunshine was under way, and city officials were taking no chance. Malie was cut out of the loop on all HOPWA matters, and she believes the city attempted to save its neck by making her the scapegoat.

Sunshine had other problems to worry about. Two houses the organization had purchased with $156,000 in HOPWA funds weren't faring much better than the apartment complex. At the moment both are vacant, according to Sunshine officials, and it's unclear how long they've been empty. Nobody responded at either house when a reporter knocked on the front doors of the Pompano Beach and Hollywood residences.

So the looming question -- especially for those AIDS victims in need of housing -- is this: What will happen to the three HOPWA-financed buildings?

Last February the Sun-Sentinel reported that the City of Fort Lauderdale had "seized control" of the SW 15th Avenue property, but that's not exactly the case. Although Sunshine still owns all three properties, ownership is contingent on the HUD guideline that the sites be used for AIDS housing for at least ten years. Because the properties appear to have been abandoned, the city is trying to foreclose on all three and has asked HUD to exempt the SW 15th Avenue property from the ten-year rule. This would allow the city to turn the property over to the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, which could use it to help homeless folks in general.

At least one AIDS charity, Shadowood II, has expressed interest in taking over the Sunshine facility. Richard Colbert, executive director of the nonprofit group, which provides transitional and permanent housing for people living with HIV, believes that the facility should serve AIDS patients only. He notes that Shadowood provides shelter for about 60 people and -- like most AIDS-housing charities -- has a long waiting list.

"We have had more people this year than we have ever had -- ever, ever, ever," Colbert says. "There's an increase in HIV homeless people. Why there is so much of it, I have no idea."

Colbert inspected the 32-unit facility last month. He says most of the apartments need new air conditioning units and the building needs to be repainted, but it's salvageable -- if he can get financial help from the city. "It's in better shape than most of the buildings in the neighborhood," he says.

Residents of the Riverside Park neighborhood beg to differ. They want the building destroyed. For more than five years, they've struggled to transform the drug-ravaged area into a marginally middle-class enclave. Tom Andrew, vice president of the Riverside Park homeowners association, says that even before Sunshine took over the SW 15th Avenue property, it was a black mark on the community. He notes that the apartments, which have just one exit, are fire hazards and would not meet current safety codes for apartment buildings. "It's our contention that the design is dehumanizing," he says. "They're chicken coops."

The homeowners association has made its opinion clear in several letters to city commissioners, but the prospect of destroying a building that has swallowed up about $750,000 in federal funds since 1995 is not something city officials would have an easy time explaining to HUD. It is possible, under HUD guidelines, that Fort Lauderdale would be forced to give the grant money back to the feds if the facility is demolished.

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