This Bad House

The Nuisance Abatement Board’s war on blight has had some unintended casualties in West Palm Beach — most of them poor

Delia Judd's jaw visibly grinds as she stands before the Nuisance Abatement Board. The gaunt black woman gazes at the floor, shakes her head slowly, and shifts with agitation. Her face is obscured by wraparound sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down over her forehead. A tangle of silver necklaces sways across her floppy sweatshirt. She and her husband, who stands passively just behind her, are listening to a litany of crimes that the West Palm Beach Police Department claims have emanated from the Judd family home on 18th Street. The board has declared the house a public nuisance after police said an informant bought crack cocaine there on three recent occasions.

"Five-oh-two 18th Street is synonymous with drug sales, violence, and every possible crime I've been involved with while on the force for 16 years," asserts Sgt. Ronald Ghianda, who stands behind a lectern 30 feet from the Judds. Between the two opposing camps are the five members of the board, which meets once a month in the City Commission's chamber at City Hall. Ghianda is flanked by five beefy narcotics cops, each wearing a black ski mask for anonymity, a thin slit open for their eyes. The crimes, Ghianda continues, have spanned decades and include the sale of cocaine, possession of cocaine, aggravated battery, robbery, possession of illegal firearms, and disorderly conduct. All the Judd children have been deeply involved, he asserts. "The family has about 300 arrests combined," he says. His speech quickening, Ghianda claims the property was used as a safe house for fugitives charged with robbery and murder who at times hid beneath removable floorboards. "I've seen stolen property stacked up to the ceiling in this house." His words choke with abhorrence. Then, directly addressing the board, Ghianda says, "I don't know why the house has never been brought before you before. It is the most despicable property I can think of."

Ghianda becomes silent. The accusations seem to have sucked the oxygen out of the room. Board members look to Judd for a response.

David Terrill
David Terrill

"Ain't nobody there but me, my husband, and my daughter-in-law," Delia Judd hisses. "I don't have people running in and out my house all the time like he says. Don't nobody sells inside my house. Ain't but three people there. None of my children live there. They're gone."

Lest the board relent, Ghianda presses on. "They're all violent people. There's no stopping this family. We want something done, the maximum. Nothing she can say or do will end this problem."

Board Chairwoman Sherry Hyman asks the woman, "So, you're saying what he's testifying to isn't true?"

Judd responds: "It's not true. Honest to God, it's not true. Don't nobody stay in that house."

"And what of you, Mr. Judd?" Hyman queries.

A soft-spoken man with graying hair and mustache, Judd's husband answers hesitantly, "I don't know what goes on during the day because I leave at 5 or 5:30 in the morning, and I don't get home until 5:30 at night. At night, nobody's in the house."

Ghianda then comes as close to commiseration as he will on this particular case. "Mr. Judd, I apologize. You work. I don't know how you survive in that residence. You've always been pleasant to me and the Police Department -- unlike the rest of your family."

Hyman quickly volunteers her assessment of the case, choosing her words deliberately. "My own thoughts are that the use of the property as a haven for illegal purposes is inextricably entwined with [the residence]. There's no other way to solve this than board it up for a period of time." Inextricably entwined sums up a legal precedent that gives the board free rein to close down property without compensating its owners. With little discussion, the board unanimously orders the Judds to board up the house and move out for ten months.

"I have no place to go," Delia Judd mumbles, less an entreaty than a stab at full comprehension.

"If you fail to board and secure before our next meeting, there will be a $100-a-day fine," Hyman instructs evenly. "I hope you'll go and get some help and clean up your act."

West Palm's Nuisance Abatement Board, or NAB, draws little public attention, but its power over private property owners is substantial: displacing tenants, boarding up properties, levying fines up to $15,000. Its role is likely to become more prominent as the city continues its efforts to revitalize the downtown Clematis Street area, nurture CityPlace at downtown's south edge, and make way for gentrification in other neighborhoods. West Palm Mayor Joel Daves in October appointed assistant city administrator John Zakian as a "downtown czar," giving him charge over police and code enforcement in the Clematis district. In addition, the Police Department recently formed an "innovative response unit," which is intended to tackle so-called quality-of-life crimes such as lewd behavior and prostitution. Ghianda is in charge of the response unit and also serves as the liaison between the department and the nuisance board. Thus, enforcement by NAB will undoubtedly grow.

Many municipalities in Florida have NABs, and they operate with varying zeal. With its shift toward renewal and its ongoing problems with illegal drug sales, West Palm Beach has a particularly aggressive NAB, established in 1988. While many would applaud its get-tough attitude, the board's actions exacerbate racial and class tensions by coming down most vigorously on the city's poorest residents. By prohibiting some landlords from renting to tenants with criminal backgrounds, the board in essence denies equal housing because poor blacks are statistically more likely to have criminal records. Such housing prohibitions have a ripple effect on extended families, who become guilty by association. Some find themselves homeless by NAB edict.

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