This Bad House

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

"My name's Mattie Daniel," a black woman said, addressing the board, her voice a rasp from infirmity and old age. "My son owns the property. Me and my five grandchildren live there. He lives in the back house. Me and my children don't have anywhere else to go." The children were ages 10, 12, 13, 16, and 17. A police officer testified that there was no evidence the grandmother and minors had sold drugs but maintained that drugs had been sold in the main house.

"I've never seen him sell drugs," Daniel said of her son. "Of course, I stay back there in my room most the time because I'm sick and don't be out much. I ain't seen him sell out the house."

Daniel's daughter-in-law, who had lived on the property for the past three years, vowed that she would henceforth be vigilant in preventing drug sales. She hadn't done so in the past because she "just went about my business."

David Terrill
David Terrill

Hyman jumped in: "It's that type of attitude that leaves us in the position we're in now. If someone had just taken the initiative and said, "This is wrong.' You're not the owners; the owners are in jail. But if you wanted to continue to live there, it's your responsibility to see that there are no illegal activities taking place."

The NAB moved to board up all the buildings for six months, giving the seven tenants 20 days to get out.

"Some of the decisions made by the board are gut-wrenching," Hyman confesses from her Jupiter office. "But we can't solve all of society's problems."

Evernia Street runs east-west through downtown West Palm Beach, cutting directly through redevelopment czar John Zakian's new turf and scraping the north end of CityPlace. The 600 block lies on a steep grade, and the homes and apartment buildings that line the western end are a mixed bag of the refurbished and the awaiting refurbishment. The two-story, salmon-colored house at 631 Evernia was at one time a single-family home but has been converted into apartments. With its weather-beaten open porch, worn wooden front steps, faded paint, and cursory landscaping, it has the look of a rundown rental building. This summer, the building's owners ran afoul of the NAB, and a cantankerous exchange left the landlords feeling gut-punched.

During a July NAB meeting, Gerald and Deborah Meitz are listening to the testimony of a ski-masked narcotics officer about their building at 631 Evernia. The white couple wear matching green T-shirts sporting the logo "Meitz Property Management." The cop describes three "controlled purchases" of cocaine from tenant Christopher Odom. (He has pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.)

The upstairs tenants have been evicted, Gerald Meitz tells the board, and Odom is in the process of being evicted, though he's currently in jail. But there's a snag. Odom's girlfriend, Lisa Winston, and their daughter also live there. Meitz attempted a speedy eviction, but Winston wrote the judge asking for more time. "I need to find another place and that takes some time to do," she wrote. "Your honor... this is my responsibility for getting things taken care of." The judge granted a hearing, which slowed the eviction.

Meitz tells the board that he knew there was a problem with drug-dealing at 631 or at one of the two houses he owns across the street. "We'd evicted three or four people in the last four months from those two houses," Meitz explains. "My wife on several occasions talked to police officers asking what could be done. They always told her, "Well, if you've got a problem, evict them.'"

For the most part, board members remain quiet, although at times, Hyman, almost as an aside, asks Addlesberger at her right for his opinion. Wearing glasses that give him the look of an academic, Addlesberger projects as stern an image as the chairwoman.

Hyman asks whether the Meitzes had tried to remove Winston from the apartment. "She'd have to go under [Odom's] eviction," Meitz responds. "We can't just make her leave, because we don't have a rental agreement with her. As the officers will attest to, the fact that she lives there means she needs to be evicted. She can't be told to leave."

When Hyman learns that Meitz has not retained an attorney to carry out the eviction, she becomes slightly agitated. "A suggestion: You need to have a lawyer for this. Because if you're not able to get someone evicted who has no lease with you and has not paid rent and there's illegal activity on the property, then you're not doing something you ought to be doing."

"With all due respect," Meitz fires back, "I've been doing this for 20 years. You can ask any of these officers here. Say I have an apartment that was vacant yesterday and I've got people living there today -- hookers, drug dealers. If an officer comes in and asks, "Do you live here?' and he sees milk in the refrigerator and toilet paper on the wall, he'll turn to me and say, "You need to evict.'"

"Look," Hyman says, cutting him off. "We're not up here to go into a whole lecture on eviction. It's hard for us to believe that you're taking all measures to get them out when this should be a simple eviction." She continues in a new vein. "I think the fact that you don't have a written lease is pretty inexcusable. The condition of the property is not our concern. But the fact you don't have a written lease promotes the kind of tenants you apparently are getting. That's not acceptable to this board. Do you have a minimum rental period, or do you let them come in for any period?"

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