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
Not long after, Geuka resigned from the board. He was already the subject of an investigation into his illegal use of a Housing Authority facility to run his charter school. His resignation was one of a string of forced resignations of Housing Authority board members and staff who either outright stole from the agency or lied to board members about money problems within the agency.
In December 1999, the board's chairman, the Rev. Richard Scott, resigned after it was revealed that he charged more than $3,200 in personal items to the agency credit card. Two years earlier, the agency fired its executive director, Sam Simmons, for hiding a $100,000 deficit from board members. While the board looked for Simmons' replacement, Deputy Director Alisa Holmes improperly paid herself and four department heads $21,000 in bonuses, the board determined.
Under state law, the Housing Authority serves as an independent government agency. Although the agency's board is appointed by the mayor, the city has no oversight over the Housing Authority; the board has complete freedom in hiring employees and administering government funds for local housing projects. Board members serve four-year terms. In West Palm Beach, two of the current members were appointed by Mayor Lois Frankel, the other three by her predecessor, Joel Daves. Because of the authority's independence from local review, it has long sparred with city leaders who complain of poor leadership.
In 1997, hoping to get back on an even track, the Housing Authority board conducted a national search for a new director. It found Laurel Robinson, who had headed the Housing Authority in Bristol, Connecticut. Robinson had a strong record of refurbishing what was previously run-down public housing in Bristol. She oversaw the installation of new siding on dilapidated buildings there and handicapped-friendly fixtures in bathrooms in public housing for retirees.
Not long after Robinson was hired in West Palm, though, word got out that the Housing Authority had done little to check her background. Unknown to the Housing Authority, Robinson had left her previous job under a cloud. She had frequently fought with the Housing Authority board in Connecticut, and the board declined to renew her contract -- tantamount to being fired, her former employers said. One of them, Joan Courchaine, said that Robinson simply rubbed people the wrong way.
"You always knew where you stood with Laurel," Courchaine said from her home in Bristol. "If she had a beef with you, she told you so, and a lot of people didn't agree with that. She was outspoken. Sometimes, she just needs to tone it down a bit."
She has done little to soften her abrasive style, critics say, or to burnish her reputation as a lackluster administrator.
In her job in West Palm, Robinson made it her first priority to remake Pleasant City. She helped develop the idea for Merry Place, and now her reputation depends upon its success.
On a recent Friday afternoon, two men went about pulling the guts out of city-owned housing in Pleasant City. They attacked a two-story apartment building on 19th Street, ripping out copper pipes, wiring, water fixtures, and anything that could be sold for scrap. One of the men, who calls himself only "Ice," says he lives in one of the abandoned buildings nearby. He's made a living this way for years. "We take it to the junkyard," he says, throwing a twisted pipe into a pile. "We can make maybe $60 or $80 a day. There are a lot of people making their living off these old buildings."
With hopes of building Merry Place, the Housing Authority has let the property where it is supposed to be built slowly rot. Two-story concrete apartment buildings dominate the weed-filled property. There's a scattering of concrete-block houses left vacant since the Housing Authority forced owners to move out. The buildings look bombed-out, with no windows and gaping holes through cinderblock walls. In one apartment building, old mattresses strewn among trash show signs that they're being occupied by the homeless, and residents say the buildings become a haven for addicts and their suppliers at night. Ice says there are likely hundreds of people living in the buildings.
"I'm not going to tell you where exactly," he says. "We all got to scrape out a little for ourselves. This here is all we got."
The Housing Authority bought the apartments in the 1970s and '80s, when anyone who could afford it was leaving urban centers for the suburbs. In all, the agency bought 132 rental units in Pleasant City. Many in the neighborhood blame Housing Authority neglect for the area's decline. The once-homey Pleasant City neighborhood of proud homeowners has become a place where 90 percent of residents are renters. Crime has flourished, and in recent months, there have been nine murders in or near Pleasant City.
In 1998, the Housing Authority came up with a $15 million plan to refurbish Pleasant City. It banked on getting grant money from HUD for new apartment buildings. Without any money in hand but feeling confident that the plans would be approved, the Housing Authority evicted its residents and left the buildings abandoned.
But HUD wanted nothing to do with the project. The federal agency turned down the plans three times, in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Robinson says the federal government denied the plans because of a misconception that everybody in Palm Beach County is wealthy. "People don't realize the great disparity of housing here," she says.