By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Mary Cleare's mother rarely talked about the place where she was born. Her home was a squatter's settlement for the African-Americans who built the Breakers Hotel for Henry Flagler. Construction and domestic workers used driftwood and the remains of old crates to construct a village of lean-tos and shacks at the north end of Palm Beach.
Only once did Cleare's mother even mention what happened to the place. Cleare, 71 now, remembers that conversation well, a bitter story that helped define the world a young, black girl would face.
It was one evening a few years before World War I, recounted her mother, Nellie Thompson, when all the black folks from the so-called Styx settlement were summoned over to the mainland. There was some kind of a party, maybe a Mardi Gras event or a circus, Cleare can't recall exactly. More vividly, though, she remembers the disgust in her mother's voice when she reached the end of the story.
"When they came back, every one of them houses was burned to the ground," Cleare recalls her mother telling her. "That was their way of getting all the black folk out of Palm Beach."
No official record exists to confirm the story that Styx residents told their children, though there's general acknowledgement that a fire destroyed much of the makeshift community. But after nearly a century, the story still stands as a rallying cry for the descendants of the doomed settlement. After the fire, the Styx residents moved to a neighborhood north of downtown West Palm Beach, where the servants of Palm Beach millionaires established a quiet community they called Pleasant City. They were cooks and maids and drivers, and when they came home at night, they held their neighborhood to the same tidy standards as the loftier properties where they worked. They lived in clapboard houses with wide front porches and modest rectangular homes of cinderblock, where neighbors shared pleasantries across the lawns of their well-kept front yards.
Many of the descendants of Styx still live in the Pleasant City neighborhood north of downtown, where, once again, somebody's come to take their land. This time, it's the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, with plans to revitalize 14 acres of the city's first minority neighborhood. The agency will construct 240 homes, apartments, and condos on roads that, up to now, have had storybook names like Cheerful Street and Comfort Place. In recognition of those names, the Housing Authority calls its project Merry Place. It's an ambitious plan that supporters say could help turn around a now-dilapidated neighborhood -- a neighborhood of slightly more than 1,000 residents that, largely because of official neglect, is now dominated by drug dealers and prostitutes.
But with the memory of Styx in mind, long-time residents say the plan is another attempt to take what's theirs and give it to whites. Fueling that belief is the Housing Authority's strong-arm tactics to take the land. With little warning, the agency in 2002 took 55 landowners to court, where a judge forced them to sell. In return, homeowners were compensated with what to them were piddling amounts. In all, the landowners split about $4.5 million, a fraction of what land sells for in nearby downtown.
The Housing Authority's plans for Merry Place have been beset from the beginning. Last year, the agency picked Lennar Corp. to build most of the project without first hammering out any of the specifics, including how much it will cost and whether the Housing Authority will make any money from it. Plans include no requirement that buyers actually live in the new housing, opening up the prospect that investors could buy the properties and flip them for a profit.
Moreover, the Housing Authority plans give no preference to minority community members. There's no insider price for relocated residents, no special status for community members who are interested in buying the new houses -- fatal errors, as far as federal housing officials were concerned. Publicly supported housing projects in traditionally minority neighborhoods should put a preference on allowing current residents to return, according to Donna White, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which denied the project federal funding.
Without HUD money, the Housing Authority is now beginning the $30 million project without a clear way to pay for it. Already, the agency has taken out a $3 million loan to buy the land, and city officials say the Housing Authority may be getting too far in debt to work its way out.
By now, the beleaguered Housing Authority's critics -- including numerous West Palm city officials -- openly express doubts that the agency can ever complete the plans. For years, the Housing Authority has been plagued by mismanagement, including a fistfight at a public meeting and multiple examples of corruption by several of its board members and staff. Sums up City Commissioner Ray Liberti: "They couldn't run a one-car funeral."
The lowest point in the West Palm Beach Housing Authority's troubled past had to be on November 12, 1997. It happened after a session of the Housing Authority board, which had met to hear a scalding evaluation by HUD officials. Afterward, board members Steven Newburgh and Amefika Geuka got into a shouting match. It ended when Geuka, the headmaster of a charter school, tried to choke Newburgh, a bald and bespectacled lawyer. "He throttled me," Newburgh recalls. "He grabbed my throat from behind." Other board members pulled Geuka off Newburgh, but the damage to the Housing Authority's already tarnished reputation was done.
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.
In reality, HUD gave the program exceedingly low marks for logistical planning, having no preference for minorities, and a lack of oversight. HUD gives no further public explanation of why it gave those marks other than to say the Housing Authority's plans did not compare to proposals from other cities.
Housing Authority officials say that giving preference to minorities in selling the new units would be discriminatory. But White, the spokeswoman for HUD, says other projects have figured out how to do so without violating antidiscrimination laws. She would not give any specific examples, but relocation programs have, among other things, often given preferential treatment to displaced residents applying for new publicly funded housing.
Forced to rethink the plans after HUD's continued rejections, Robinson went instead to the City Commission for help. She found an audience that was no more responsive. The city in 2002 declined to financially support the plans. City leaders wanted the project to sell its homes rather than rent them, and they blasted the Housing Authority for having no architectural drawings. A year later, the Housing Authority returned, but commissioners blasted Robinson for moving too slowly in completing the plans. City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell was the first to notice flaws in the plan, and the rest of the commission soon joined her dissent. "It was a dog with fleas," Mitchell says. "It stunk."
Robinson says the city was reacting to the Housing Authority's past problems. "The tension with the city is grounded in the history of what housing authorities used to be," Robinson says. "They have pigeonholed us, and they're not used to seeing us out here doing different things."
As the Merry Place plans have floundered in the past seven years, Pleasant City has become nearly ringed in redevelopment. The neighborhood to its east has become filled with upscale offices in refurbished old homes; to the south is downtown with its new condo buildings; and above it is Northwood, an area where half-million-dollar homes are common. Meanwhile, the dilapidated Housing Authority homes have added to Pleasant City's decline. Prostitutes frequent the abandoned roads. The empty buildings have served as camps for drug addicts and their dealers.
Hoping to finally get financial support from the city, Robinson revamped the plans last year to include outside partners. She took out an advertisement looking for a developer to build new housing. Robinson says three developers responded with interest in the project, but she was unable to produce any documents they submitted. In a letter to New Times dated February 7, Robinson indicated she would mail the documents, but they never arrived. Still, Robinson defended the selection of the developer. "We picked Lennar because of their successes with low-income housing projects in the past," Robinson says. "We needed someone with experience to tackle this."
Since selecting Lennar last year, the Housing Authority has been trying to negotiate a contract with the company. Promotional material handed out by the Housing Authority has promised that Lennar will keep the prices of the Merry Place homes and condos between $115,000 and $185,000 for low-income families, but that has not been finalized with Lennar. The Housing Authority has also not worked out how it could prevent homeowners from selling the properties after they've received them at discounted rates. It's also not clear what, if anything, Lennar will pay to build on land seized from Pleasant City homeowners. Because a contract has yet to be hammered out, it's still unclear whether Lennar would work for Housing Authority reimbursement or for a stake in the project.
Housing Authority board member Chuck St. Lawrence, a retired associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau, defended the hiring of Lennar. He says the Housing Authority had to partner with a builder who has experience and a good reputation. "I don't think they have a sweetheart deal," St. Lawrence said. "Anyone who's doing what we're doing has a lot of reason to partner with somebody who has a lot of experience."
The plan has taken the most criticism for its failure to include a way to pay for it. The cost of the Merry Place plans has doubled since they were first proposed, and the Housing Authority has already taken on a $3 million short-term loan without a way to pay it off. City Commissioners have expressed concerns that the Housing Authority has mounting debts without a way out. City Commissioner Liberti says the debt is indicative of the Housing Authority's poor planning. "If they were in the public sector," Liberti says, "they would've been fired long ago."
Despite the problems, the commission has adopted a pragmatic let's-get-off-the-dime approach, signing off on the Housing Authority plans this past January. The city also agreed to help by chipping in $200,000 for neighborhood improvements. Commissioner Mitchell said she approved the plans in hopes that something would finally happen in Pleasant City. The plans call for 19 single-family homes, 93 condos and townhouses, and 128 rental units. In the center of Merry Place would be a community center and a small park ringed by a half-moon-shaped street, Cheerful Court.
Still, many of the City Commissioners say they doubt anything will get done. Mitchell has threatened that if the Housing Authority fails, the city will try to take the land from it. Even with these doubts, Mitchell says the commission gave its approval in the hopes that something will happen in Pleasant City. "The fact that I don't care for the Housing Authority has nothing to do with the fact that this neighborhood needs help," she says. "We had to do something."
Even though the Housing Authority got approval from the commission, it still has a long way to go to win over the residents of Pleasant City, a community that has a lot of reasons to be skeptical of revitalization plans.
Until recently, Ruby Bennett was a textbook Housing Authority success story. She grew up in a housing development and spent a good part of her adult life there. Then, saving up her tips while working as a waitress, she put down a deposit in 1975 on her own place. It was a four-bedroom, two-bath, concrete-block home off Comfort Place in the center of Pleasant City. Her graduation to homeownership shows how residents of public housing can, with a little official encouragement, move up the social ladder.
In the new home, she raised three boys of her own. When a friend was shot and killed, she raised the dead woman's three boys too. A niece made it seven. Even with her kids long gone, there are reminders in that house of her children. There are the signs like "No parents allowed" on the bedroom doors, old concert posters in her kids' previous rooms, and bikes in the backyard now ridden by her grandchildren. "It was really a house full of kids," recalls the 61-year-old Bennett.
Three years ago, Bennett started getting harassing phone calls. She says it was a developer from Fort Lauderdale who was demanding her home. She doesn't remember the name of the caller or the company, but she remembers the message. "They kept saying they were going to take my house," she says. "I knew they were going to take it one way or another."
In April 2002, the West Palm Beach Housing Authority sued Bennett and 54 other landowners for the swath of land that will make up Merry Place. The lawsuit demanded the land under a legal proceeding called eminent domain. Dating back to English law, eminent domain was originally used by the government to take land for bridges, schools, roads, and other public projects. But courts began expanding the definition of "public use" in the 1950s and included to the refurbishment of blighted areas.
Still, using eminent domain to take land is a controversial move. The law is being considered in a U.S. Supreme Court case that could impact future land-taking efforts by local governments. In the Supreme Court case, the New London, Connecticut, city government tried to take land from homeowners to give it to a developer, who planned to use it for a marina. If the landowners win, it could keep governments from taking land unless it is for a "common sense" definition of public use, says Stephen Anderson, with the Institute for Justice, which is representing the homeowners in the case. "What's happening in recent years is a blurring of what is public use," Anderson says from his office in Washington, D.C. "We would like it returned to one that makes sense, like for a school, a post office, and not simply turning the land over to a developer."
Under Florida law, governmental agencies like the Housing Authority have the right to seize blighted property in the hopes of fixing it up, says Frank Schnidman, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who's an expert on eminent domain and has worked on the case now before the Supreme Court. Schnidman says there's an obvious public good in refurbishing blighted areas, but he says governments shouldn't become developers. "There's really a problem when government serves as a developer," Schnidman says. "You really have to question it. If the redevelopment plan was so good, a developer would have thought of it already."
In the Housing Authority's lawsuit, most of the landowners caved and agreed to sell their land. They split about $4.5 million for the 14 acres, a bargain for property so close to West Palm's downtown, where 3,000 new condominiums are planned. In comparison, a four-acre waterfront spot about five blocks away on North Flagler Drive sold for $30 million a year ago.
Some homeowners sold reluctantly, like Cleare, whose mother grew up in Styx and then built a home in Pleasant City. Cleare had the house torn down after her mother died in 1972, but she held on to the land for sentimental reasons. "That's the place where I was born and raised," she says. "I wasn't going to give it up." But Cleare says the Housing Authority threatened to keep bringing city code inspectors to the property any time the grass got too long or vagrants left trash in the yard. Fines would get bigger and bigger, she says they warned her. Two years ago, she finally sold her mother's property for $7,500.
Down the street, retired construction worker Michael Cleveland has refused to sell. It wasn't so much the idea of holding on to his small cinderblock home but of the idea of holding on to a neighborhood where he grew up, where he used to walk to the water to fish oysters out of the lagoon, where he'd walk to elementary school, and where moms used to ask neighbors to watch one anothers' kids. Cleveland says it was also about racism. He saw the plans as a way for the city to move African-Americans out of a neighborhood that has always been theirs. "I said it was racism back when they proposed it," he says, "and I still say it is racism."
Cleveland headed the Pleasant City Homeowners Association until it disbanded a couple of years ago, when many of the members accepted the Housing Authority's buyouts. He was so adamantly opposed to the project that the Housing Authority excluded his land from it. Plans call for the new homes to be built surrounding Cleveland's house.
For Bennett, she consulted the seven kids she raised in her home before considering whether to sell. They agreed she had little chance of fighting the Housing Authority. Instead of cash, Bennett agreed to give up her home in exchange for a new one in Merry Place. The Housing Authority, sure the plans would be approved soon, stipulated in a contract signed with Bennett that it would have her new home built by June 2003.
Bennett was still living in her old home when Hurricane Jeanne struck last September. The storm took off every shingle left on her roof, and rain came in unstopped in her bedrooms. She slept on her couch for a few months until one of her sons found out. Because fixing the soon-to-be-bulldozed place would be a waste, the Housing Authority agreed to move Bennett into one of its properties off Belvedere Road. Her kids helped her pack up the old home and move into a tiny, two-bedroom duplex with beige siding and a door covered in bubbling paint. She filled a wall full of photos of the kids she raised. Her sectional and recliner barely fit in the tiny living room. "It's fine here," Bennett says indifferently. "I try not to be a nuisance to them, but I'm sick and tired of waiting for my house. Are they waiting for me to die? Because they have to build my house even if I'm not around, you know."
She doesn't go by her old house anymore. The windows and plumbing and anything of value has been pilfered by vandals. The floors are strewn with trash mixed in with things Bennett left behind when she moved. There's a malt liquor can, sheet music, and an old trophy lying near the living room window. "It makes me cry to see my old house," Bennett says. "I can't go by there. I can't look at what they've done to it."
Still, Bennett's hopeful that Merry Place will be better. She hopes some of her old neighbors will return, but she's doubtful. "You know, they revitalize the neighborhood, so they say it's going to be better," she said. "We'll see. I'm not holding my breath that it's going to be any better than what we had."