Storming the Castle

Hallandale Beach and a Broward judge are trying to drive a man from his home

In Florida, the old adage about a man's home being his castle isn't just talk. It's the law. It's almost Holy Writ.

The state's homestead exemption is so absolute that a Florida homestead is known in legal circles simply as "the sacred cow." Others call it "the castle." Added to the Florida Constitution in 1868, the exemption forbids the forced sale of our homes and exempts them from seizure in civil judgments. Here's what Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Browne had to say about the homestead exemption in the early 1900s:

"[Its] obvious purpose is to secure each family a home and means of livelihood, irrespective of financial misfortune, and beyond the reach of creditors; security of the State from the burden of pauperism, and the individual citizen from destitution."

Countless families have indeed been spared the "burden of pauperism" because of it. But what happens when government bureaucrats take the sacred cow to the slaughterhouse? Or worse, when a judge not only allows it to happen but also brings a fork to the table so she can feast on the bloody carcass?

Aristides Pelecanos is finding out. He's living the homesteader's nightmare, a protracted six-year battle that has broken him financially and taken a toll on his health. Because Pelecanos' house has fallen into disrepair, the City of Hallandale Beach has hit him with $3 million in code enforcement fines. And Broward Circuit Judge Patti Henning has ruled against him over and over again — whether the law supports her or not.

It may be the bitterest and most expensive code enforcement case in the city's history — and Pelecanos believes that one of his neighbors has been instrumental in the campaign against him: Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper.

He's right, too.

Cooper lives a block from Pelecanos, down upscale Holiday Lane on the Intracoastal, and routinely walks her dog by his house. She admits that she's trying to drive him from it.

"The pool's not maintained, the landscaping is a mess, the roof looks terrible, the driveway is not painted, you name it," Cooper says. "I have been very involved in the process, getting monthly reports and briefings. The home should be foreclosed on, but there's a loophole in the law."

That "loophole," of course, is the homestead exemption, what two Florida judges in 1949 called "the great bulwark of the individual homeowner."

Cooper may have gone overboard with this, but she has a point: Pelecanos' house, a 3,500-square-foot waterfront number with a beautiful view of the water, is an eyesore. The roof is dirty and unkempt; the driveway is going to seed. It looks out of place on the street of huge homes with beautifully manicured lawns.

Behind every ugly house, however, there's usually a hard-luck story. Pelecanos' is no exception.

Born in Athens, he came to America in 1973 with little more than his childhood sweetheart and the clothes on his back. For the next 15 years, he worked hard, helping to make everything from shoes to pizza to kitchen countertops. That last job made him a good salary, in the mid-five figures. His wife from Athens, Vassiliki Barbatsi, was with him all the while, selling cosmetic products for extra money.

They bought the house on Holiday Lane in 1988 for $280,000. Pelecanos says the only way they could afford it was $75,000 given to him for a down payment by his wife's father. They still owe about $130,000 on the original mortgage.

For 12 years, they lived in the beautiful house without trouble. But then a series of misfortunes struck. The bulk of Pelecanos' countertop work was in Weston, which boomed throughout the 1990s. Then business slowed. Then his supplier went out of business.

At about the same time, his mother became ill back in Greece. He says he paid $23,000 out of his own pocket to put her in a private hospital. On top of that, he also lost much of his savings in the dot-com bust.

"For the first time in my life, it was one thing after another," he says in his thick Greek accent.

"I was depressed. I drank too much. But these people treat me like criminal."

When his house fell into disrepair, the neighbors, including Mayor Cooper, noticed. They complained to code enforcement, which cited him with violations in late 2000. The fines totaled $1,050 — each day.

He tried to satisfy the city. He washed the roof but couldn't afford to replace it. He cleaned up the yard and covered the pool with a tarp. It wasn't enough.

In February 2002, the city sued Pelecanos and Barbatsi in Broward Circuit Court to force him to pay the fines, which had then reached $436,150 (including $91,600 for "dead sod").

Ultimately, Judge Patti Englander Henning, a veteran of the bench (and sister of Broward tourism czar Nikki Grossman), was assigned the case. It went downhill from there for Pelecanos.

He says he wanted to get a home equity loan, fix the house, and get out of the neighborhood. But the lawsuit, liens, and fines ensured that no bank would give him the time of day.

Pelecanos says that Henning, who didn't return my phone calls for comment, seemed to be dead-set against him from the beginning.

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