By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
A few feet back from the speeding traffic on NW 31st Avenue just north of Broward Boulevard stands a blue-and-black house. The paint, once bright, is now chipped and faded, and the grass is a little ragged. Though the place is in decent shape, it bears the signs of accelerating decay. Inside the atmosphere is the same. The comfortable furniture was a bright gold tone decades ago, but now it's worn and faded.
The house feels as if it belongs to a family trying to hang on, and Charlean Rhodes knows it. "I'm maintainin', you know, but I can't do no better than this," mutters the 55-year-old, small and frail in her pink blouse and white pants. Rhodes and her mother, Bertha, who have lived in the home since 1979, have for the last few years been watching the remnants of their past slip away. A month ago Charlean Rhodes opened a registered letter from Broward County informing her the county planned to seize and sell a piece of land on NW Ninth Court that she and her mother own. The lot is being sold to pay off $4612 in unpaid property taxes. Two months ago the county demolished a dilapidated 14-bed rooming house that stood there.
As the photos of smiling family members that line her mantel suggest, the situation wasn't always this bad. Charles Rhodes, Bertha's husband, came to Broward County a half-century ago from West Palm Beach and opened Roosevelt Gardens, a popular lounge on Sunrise Boulevard. The profits enabled him to buy several rooming houses in central Broward that provided his family with a good living for years.
But Charles died in 1996 at age 94. He intended the properties he had spent much of his life accumulating to support his wife and daughter. Charlean Rhodes's 16 years as a Broward County bus driver ended with a 1992 stroke, and these days she can't hold a regular job. She's unsteady on her feet and sometimes must search for words; the phrase "you know" fills the gaps in her slow speech.
Instead of providing support, Charles's gift has turned into an enormous burden because of ever-increasing county taxes. Charlean and Bertha used to own half a dozen rental properties, but they were unable to maintain them. As the buildings fell into disrepair, the county condemned and demolished each of them, then posted the cleanup cost on the Rhodes's property tax bill. "They add that every year, and it just keeps going, you know?" Charlean says, referring to the increasing balance with an upraised thumb. "Pssht -- they go up and up."
With the rental properties gone, Charlean tries to keep pace by cleaning boats and cars part-time, but she's still paying her old medical bills. "Empty lots don't make no money, you know, but you still got to pay taxes," she says. "You would be surprised, the money, just my own personal savings that I dipped into just to try and keep these places going. My savings done went dry trying to hold on."
Charlean and Bertha Rhodes are two of about 88,000 people who live in unincorporated areas scattered throughout Broward County. The women and others like them have seen their property taxes rise by a third since 1997, when the Broward County Commission passed a resolution stating that everyone in the county should live in a city by 2010. (Last week a committee of county leaders recommended moving the deadline to 2005, but the decision is not a law; places like Fort Lauderdale remain strongly opposed to annexing poor areas.)
Residents of unincorporated areas now pay about 25 percent more in property taxes than Broward city dwellers. And the gap will grow as 2010 approaches if cities continue the last few years' pattern of cherry-picking affluent neighborhoods and leaving behind poorer areas.
As tax-rich commercial areas were gobbled up by municipalities, each homeowner in the remaining unincorporated areas had to shoulder a greater share of the tax burden for urban services. It also costs the county more to offer services to scattered pockets than it does for a city to serve a compact mass. And less affluent neighborhoods need the most work to meet city infrastructure standards, making them unattractive for annexation. So the county's poorest people are stuck paying the highest taxes for the longest time.
The tax squeeze will likely tighten most on the people clustered in a mile-and-a-half-wide swath between Fort Lauderdale and Plantation, classified by the U.S. Census as tracts 411 and 413. With a population that is 97 percent black, the neighborhoods of Boulevard Gardens, Broward Estates, Franklin Park, Roosevelt Gardens, St. George, and Washington Park are the poorest areas outside cities. The per capita income in these places averages $8700, the lowest in unincorporated Broward County. These neighborhoods are the last on any city's annexation list.
The current annexation debate is a bit of early Broward history in reverse. The city fathers of Fort Lauderdale, filled with ambition just a few years after the municipality's 1911 founding, annexed much of the central county around 1925, according to old boundary maps. A few years later, about 1931, according to the maps, officials de-annexed the western reaches to free the few farmers who lived there from city taxes, which were higher than county levies.
Until the 1940s the area that would become census tracts 411 and 413 was mostly cow pastures and farms. When servicemen returned from World War II, builders began constructing modest tract houses there. Many of those who chose to move into the homes were black. Some had family in the Sistrunk area, just a few miles east.
Most of the roughly 4500 buildings in the area date to the '50s and '60s. Many didn't have electricity until the mid-'60s, when the mostly white cities to the west began to develop and incorporate. Power lines were nonexistent; people lit electric lamps with car batteries or used gas lanterns. Until the late '60s, many homes still had outhouses. Long-time residents remember a foul mess overflowing into the streets when the inevitable fall rains overwhelmed the poorly built drainage system.
Crime became a problem in the area, too. Some residents remember a bustling drug trade and gunshots in the night during the '70s and '80s. Murders and violence were so common that many residents became inured to them.
The neighborhoods have improved lately. The area's fourteen murders in 1990 dropped to just one in 2000. The county is spending $100 million there to improve sidewalks, drainage, and other infrastructure, and a sprinkling of more affluent people have moved in and begun refurbishing houses.
They're a welcome sight to Yvonne Sumlin, who grew up in one of the area's first houses and moved back in 1991 after she retired from BellSouth. Now she doesn't want to live anywhere but her quiet house on NW Eighth Road in Washington Park. "I love it here," she says, smiling. She especially love the stepped-up code enforcement and police protection that have accompanied the new construction. "I will say that Broward County, in the last couple of years, has been very helpful," Sumlin says. But those improvements come at a price: On a house valued for taxes at $49,210 in 2000, she paid $1670, a third more than she forked out in 1996. And the bill is getting higher every year.
At the north end of a tiny strip mall on NW 31st Avenue, Howard's Candy Store lies behind a grating-covered door. Inside, 71-year-old Roney Howard presides over a narrow, pink-painted room that is cluttered with disused, makeshift counters and a scattering of candy, some of which has obviously aged on the shelves. On a small shelf stand jars of pickled eggs, sausage, and pigs' feet. The table by the door sports a plate full of pound cake and sweet potato pie, homemade by Howard's sister-in-law Betty.
Howard's few customers find him here six days a week but only from noon until dusk. Worried about crime, he doesn't linger in the poorly lit area when night falls. Some people in the neighborhood think he's getting rich off sales of ice cream and an occasional Blow Pop, he says. But he barely manages to stay open, a problem he says is common for the few businesses scattered along this stretch of road that separates census tracts 411 and 413. "We don't have too much to offer," Howard comments, "maybe a smiling face and a kind word."
On some days only three or four customers visit, but Howard is determined to remain in business as long as he can. Two things keep him from shuttering the three-year-old shop: financial need and the desire to set an example.
Wages from three decades of cleaning up construction sites paid for Howard's modest, green-trimmed, white stucco house on NW 33rd Terrace, which he bought in 1970 for a little less than $13,000. Over the years he and his wife, Ruth, added a carport and an extra room while raising ten children, who have now grown up and moved on.
The Howards managed to afford retirement on their combined social security income until she died five years ago. Then he was left to get by on his government check of about $570 per month. It wasn't enough. "I don't have nobody to help me... say if I get sick or something," he says.
When he decided to open a neighborhood business, Howard had more in mind than just making a living. Clutching a single crumpled dollar bill, he explains that he wanted to be a role model for the neighborhood kids growing up without dreams for the future -- or with the wrong kind of dreams. He wanted to show them that it is possible to make an honest living while staying near home.
His own childhood was cut short when he left school after the third grade to work; when his father died five years later in 1943, the young boy lost his own role model. "It's hard to talk about that stuff," he says. A tear runs down a crease in Howard's face. He was left with the responsibility of helping his mother and younger brothers by picking vegetables up and down the East Coast.
That early obligation is why he's not willing to give up now, even after taking a new mortgage on his house to open the candy store and sinking almost $8000 into the business in the last three years: $800 for a used triple sink, $300 for a used hot dog machine, $300 for a fryer, and so on. Now he doesn't use any of them. There's no reason to cook food when nobody's buying. But Howard holds out hope.
After talking for two hours with a reporter, he stops long enough to sell a ten-cent Sweet 'n Sour Pop to a barber from the shop next door. "I've seen a lot of good people here, and there are still a lot of good people now," Howard says. "I lay awake a lot of nights thinking about how to motivate myself to make my business prosper."
Now and then Howard gets a request for a $2 smoked sausage on a bun, which he heats in a toaster oven, careful to keep the smudged glass-and-metal door from falling off. But most of the action is in the back of the shop, where old friends cluster around a homemade plywood checkerboard for hours on end. Players trade boastful banter over an old TV's blare of Judge Judy or Matlock as they slap down the checkers. But checkers games don't make money. "Sometimes you break even," Howard says, "but not all the time."
Last year taxes on his house, now assessed at $33,920, reached $1305. "It seems like they don't know when to quit with [tax hikes]," Howard says, shaking his head. Every month it's a strain to come up with the $400 rent for his store and the $700 mortgage payment on his house. And so three or four times a week, Howard climbs into a battered, rust-streaked white pickup that pulls a trailer with "Roney Howard Lawn Service" hand-painted on the side. He drives all over the county for $25 to $50 per job, depending on the size of the yard; it has to be small enough for him to finish mowing before the full heat of the day hits. It's not the best way to spend a South Florida morning, but Howard has little choice. "I'm struggling now," he says. "I'm struggling, trying to survive."
When officials fused northern Dade and southern Palm Beach counties in 1915 to form a new county and named it for former Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, its only incorporated cities were Dania, Pompano, and Fort Lauderdale, all on the coast. By 1929 four more small municipalities -- Deerfield, Davie, Hollywood, and Floranada (later renamed Oakland Park) -- had formed. The number remained constant until after World War II. Between 1945 and 1970, as new homes sprang up miles inland, Broward's population increased sevenfold. Developers who saw an advantage to independence in setting zoning rules, garbage fees, and other regulations, incorporated their own fiefdoms. Thus Plantation was born in 1953, Lauderhill in 1959, and Lauderdale Lakes in 1961.
In the ensuing years, some cities expanded by annexing commercial areas, which require comparatively few services for the taxes they pay. In 1963 Plantation moved its eastern boundary out a mile, taking in both the commercial strip of U.S. Highway 441 and a square mile of residences that lay between Davie Boulevard and Sunrise Boulevard. That's the annexation about which residents in census tracts 411 and 413 howl the loudest today, claiming that Plantation "stole" their turf. Combined with the businesses along 441, the still-unincorporated neighborhoods might have been ripe for annexation, because commercial areas generally pay more in taxes than they collect in services like garbage pickup and police protection. Without the U.S. Highway 441 strip, central county residents -- who pay less in property taxes on inexpensive homes than their more affluent neighbors -- would likely drain city coffers.
County and legislative leaders, seeking to bring some order to the process, began to discourage ragtag incorporations after authoring a county charter in 1974. In 1976 County Administrator Lex Hester aggressively pushed a plan to establish a unified annexation policy. He held a series of meetings with various cities' officials and ordered county staff to work out recommendations for future annexations. But when he unveiled the scheme before the state legislators representing Broward, many unincorporated residents balked. The recommended annexations would have caused their then-low tax rates to increase to the level of the cities'. In the ensuing uproar, Hester lost his job.
Howard Forman (now county clerk of courts) was elected to the county commission just in time to watch the Hester-plan debacle. A decade later, knowing the tax crunch was still coming, Forman and his colleagues requested that county staff spend six months working out a phased annexation blueprint to move 30 square miles of unincorporated Broward into cities. "We came up with a plan that was acceptable to the cities and to the county," says Cynthia Chambers, director of the county's Planning Services Division, who helped write the multiphase plan.
The first phase dealt only with supposedly uncontroversial annexations, where only one city wanted an area and was willing to annex it. Then Forman brought the annexation blueprint to the legislative delegation. "I'd say it took all of about 60 seconds, and they shot it down at the first public hearing -- literally," Chambers says.
Instead Broward's state legislators suggested county staff assemble a new proposal. The new scheme was rejected just as quickly. And those were the uncontroversial proposals. The decision-makers never even discussed poor residential areas like census tracts 411 and 413, Chambers says.
In the mid-1990s, when Fort Lauderdale picked up the lucrative commercial areas of Cypress Creek and Marina Mile roads, two things happened. Then-county administrator Jack Osterholt pushed through a massive program of improvements in unincorporated areas, trying to tempt cities to take them; and Broward's state legislators, fed up with piecemeal annexation bills, refused to consider such measures in 1996. Instead the legislators set up an ad hoc committee chaired by then-state senator Jack Tobin that condemned cherry-picking and set a 2010 deadline for incorporation of the entire county.
But that recommendation didn't become law. The next year legislators approved a measure some thought would ease the process of annexation by ending a requirement for a public vote in a city that was considering gobbling up neighboring property. But that move only shifted disputes from the local voting booth to the legislative committee.
The problems with this chaotic approach to annexation became painfully clear in 1996 when Weston, which had been an enormous source of county tax dollars, incorporated. That's when county taxes and fees really started climbing for the remaining unincorporated area.
In an effort to spruce up the unincorporated areas and make them more palatable to cities, county commissioners recently voted to spend $500 million on neighborhood improvements by 2006. That plan, fueled by unincorporated residents' tax dollars, will pay for an expansion of the improvements that Osterholt started in 1994. About $100 million of the money is going to the central county, which includes tracts 411 and 413. In Washington Park, streets are being blocked off as workers install drainage, water, and sewer lines. Fire hydrants stand a foot higher than they should in some places, waiting to be matched with sidewalks and new pavement.
County work crews making their way from north to south in the central county will soon reach one of the oldest buildings in the area. Oscar Reid Sr., Yvonne Sumlin's father, built a house on NW Sixth Court in 1946. Reid, a trucker by trade, raised his three kids in the home and lived there until 1984, when he died. After Oscar Reid's death, his wife, Willie Mae, lived there alone.
In the mid-1980s, Tracy Sumlin, Yvonne's daughter, began dating Steven Durham, and the pair regularly joined grandmother Willie Mae and the rest of the family at the Reid house for Sunday turkey dinner. Willie Mae told the couple that when they married they were welcome to move into the house. But Steven couldn't imagine living there. He made his feelings clear when he and Tracy said their vows 12 years ago. "On the way from the church, I said, "I ain't gonna live with Grandma,'" Steven Durham recalls.
Often, as they sat around Willie Mae's kitchen table, gunfire would sound outside. Steven and Tracy would dive for the floor, but not Grandma; accustomed to it, she remained sitting and eating calmly as they begged her to lie down. The gunfire wasn't anything personal. Grandma Reid was a neighborhood institution, and the drug dealers doing the shooting would sometimes drop by the next day to apologize for the noise.
The area was unique, Steven recalls. "In the '80s you could still hear roosters crowing every morning," he says. "There were some people over here that had chickens and goats."
Sensing that changes for the better were coming, Tracy and Steven bought Willie Mae Reid's rundown house for $51,000 after her death a decade ago. Aside from a fresh coat of paint, the exterior looks as it always has. But Steven tore out a maze of interior walls to create several large rooms, redid the bathroom with a large new marble bathtub, and replaced the old wood floor with white tile. "And we were hoping some of our neighbors would renovate while we were renovating," Tracy says with a chuckle. Indeed, during the last decade, a few young professionals have moved into the area and built new houses, and children have remodeled their parents' old homes.
Now the gunplay has stopped, and the rates of other crimes such as robbery, burglary, and car theft have fallen off by two-thirds. Steven credits stepped-up police patrols for the change; undercover Broward Sheriff's Office deputies even stopped him on his way home from work to question him about drugs. But he didn't really mind, he says. The cleanup was worth it. "Now I don't think anything about walking four or five blocks to visit my friends," he says.
In a few years, sidewalks will run beside freshly paved streets. Cities should have no reason to straight-arm these neighborhoods any longer, the Durhams say. "I want our neighborhoods to look just as beautiful as Plantation's," Tracy says, "and there's no reason why they can't."
Eugene Franklin, president of the Washington Park Homeowners Association, welcomes the improvements. But he doesn't believe they will entice Fort Lauderdale or any other city to annex the neighborhood anytime soon. The problem, Franklin says, is based in residents' misunderstanding of why their taxes are rising and county officials' ignorance of the area. "We don't understand what wasting water means. We don't understand what recycling means. We don't understand what tax-exempt properties are. We don't understand what vacant houses do -- besides looking ugly, providing holes for crack addicts and prostitutes. But the people that do don't live here."
Franklin blames former county leaders for not working out a unified annexation policy that links tax-rich commercial areas with poorer residential neighborhoods. That should have been done years ago. "It wasn't right then; it's not right now," Franklin says, thumping a table to emphasize his frustration.
One of the issues that makes tracts 411 and 413 a hard pill to swallow for the cities that surround it -- Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, Lauderhill, and Lauderdale Lakes -- is the large number of churches, which are tax exempt. Most, such as Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ or the Church of God by Faith, are small storefronts for obscure denominations. Together these parcels make up more than a third of all property in the area, according to a 1998 study sponsored by the county. Thus the cost of services to the area is likely to outstrip tax revenues.
Another problem is that Franklin and several other residents contacted by New Times argue the central-county neighborhoods should stick together and be annexed en masse into a single city. If they insist on that and residents must vote on joining any city, the only choice is Fort Lauderdale, which boasts a population of 155,000. It's the only one that could possibly absorb all of them without turning politics and services upside down. The central county's population, 34,000, is bigger than the total of Lauderdale Lakes, three-quarters that of Lauderhill, and 40 percent of the number of residents in Plantation.
But Fort Lauderdale has made annexation unlikely. The city is demanding a yearly subsidy from the county for as long as a decade before it accepts the properties, says Mayor Jim Naugle. But this past July 1, citing the promised $500 million in improvements, Broward commissioners voted to refuse any such monetary assistance. The city's position is a matter of simple math, Naugle contends. Residential areas need to have an average taxable value of $200,000 per house, or the city will spend more for services than it collects in property taxes. The average central-county house has a mere $50,000 taxable value. "Our policy is, when those areas can pay for themselves, they can come into the city," Naugle says. "But we don't want to impose higher taxes on the rest of the city to pay for them."
One other possibility is that the area could form its own city. But a county-backed study by Nova Southeastern University in 1998 shows that idea is infeasible. With little commercial property to provide tax revenues, a new city would have to charge property levies above the state-mandated maximum, the study concluded. Some residents would like to include U.S. Highway 441, now held by Plantation, in a new central-county city. But the area's state legislators -- Sen. Mandy Dawson and representatives Chris Smith and Matt Meadows -- agree that's a political impossibility.
Other annexations are moving apace these days. Residents of Rock Island, north of census tracts 411 and 413, may soon choose between Oakland Park and Fort Lauderdale. And Lauderdale Lakes is pondering annexation of West Ken Lark, which includes the Swap Shop. Last week, during a four-hour meeting at the Broward County Governmental Center, a committee of county leaders (successor to the 1996 ad hoc committee) agreed to push ahead aggressively with annexation, moving the deadline for its completion from 2010 to 2005. The quarrelsome group spent hours nitpicking definitions before making several other recommendations, including requiring submission of all the proposed annexations to the legislature in one bill. But most of what they suggested had been tried before -- and failed.
What will legislators do if the central county still has no civic suitor in 2005? Representative Smith admits this is likely. Senator Dawson hedges: "We would have to act responsibly. It would be so pathetic that even the hardest heart would have to help them." Despite the county's policy against subsidy, commissioners will likely have to allow the county chip in, she predicts.
If annexation follows its historic pattern, with the poorest areas being left for last, taxes on those remaining will rise even faster as the county struggles to provide basic services, says Marci Gelman, a top official in the county's budget office. Some officials have pegged the tax increase at 20 percent over the next two years.
That charge won't be easy on Charlean Rhodes. She and her mother can barely keep up with their house and yard. They have considered moving to a townhouse, Charlean says, but assume the taxes would be even higher.
The soon-to-be-built sidewalks and drainage improvements haven't benefited her, she says. They've only cost her the properties left by her father. "I just look at the money that we have paid out in taxes, and what do they do?" she asks. "They kick your butt -- and kick your ass out in the street. They don't give you nothing for all you pay."
Charlean knows that next year's taxes on her home will likely be higher than the 2000 total of $2057. "A damn can of worms," she calls it. She speaks vaguely, refusing to speculate, about what might happen to her and her mother Bertha if the levies keep rising for more than a couple of years. Anything's possible, she says. "You and me, we might be millionaires by then, you know?"