Building Ill Will
Lured by a tantalizing radio ad, 130 first-time homebuyers crowded into the offices of a nonprofit organization called 100 Black Men last March, anxious to hear how they could purchase their own houses.
Andre Williams, president of 100 Black Men of Broward County, Inc., told the potential homebuyers how they could buy new three- and four-bedroom houses with little or no credit and no down payment for as little as $65,000. And he said the homes would go up fast -- in only 45 to 90 days once building permits were obtained.
At the same time the program had other, noble objectives. The plan of 100 Black Men was to rebuild depressed black communities, train unemployed black men and put them to work building the houses, and place vacant, garbage-strewn lots back on the tax rolls. Williams saw this program as a continuation of the ten-year-old chapter's work mentoring children and training them on computers, handing out scholarships, and offering vocational training to the unemployed. The other ninety chapters of 100 Black Men around the country would carefully watch this model of an affordable-housing program.
Government officials embraced the project, lamenting the desperate need for affordable housing in Broward. Angelo Castillo, director of Broward County's Human Services Department, was photographed at a groundbreaking held several months later.
But the noble dream is rapidly turning into so much sawdust. A year after the program's inception, not one house has been completed. Many of the 13 families who prequalified, disgusted with broken deadlines and promises, are backing out of the program and trying to get their deposits back. One potential homebuyer is so angry she has consulted a lawyer and fired off letters to the Florida Department of Consumer Affairs, Broward County officials, and the national headquarters of 100 Black Men.
"I'm really upset," says Vanessa Potter, a 28-year-old, dental-insurance company employee. "I can't believe they took advantage of me. I don't know what my recourse is."
The program started out smoothly enough. An amalgam of community leaders, mortgage brokerage firms, and Broward County officials helped form the group called the 100 Black Men Development Partnership. The mortgage brokers agreed to help the homebuyers obtain financing, and the county promised to provide technical assistance and wipe tax liens off county-owned vacant properties, making them cheaper to purchase.
The organization bought six lots in the first phase of the program, all on Ninth Avenue in the Washington Park section of unincorporated Broward. The area, abutting the north fork of the New River, is primarily a low-income black community.
In all, 100 Black Men planned to build 300 to 400 homes over a four-year period in Washington Park, Carver Ranches, Pompano Beach, and Deerfield Beach.
Williams was hazy on where he would get the $7 to $12 million needed to buy the lots and build the homes, saying simply that he was using private funds. He told prospective homebuyers that down payments of $500 to $3000 per family would not fund construction but would sit untouched in the bank.
Thirteen people prequalified for mortgages, primarily with two mortgage companies -- Regency and Capital Mortgage. But troubles soon began when Regency left the program eight months ago. Williams says he fired the company but won't say why; no one answered the phone at the number listed for Regency on documents.
The promise of a three-bedroom house, complete with alarm system, sprinklers, and other amenities, sounded too good to be true to Jonathan Pinkney. A Pompano Beach forklift driver, Pinkney signed up and put down a $500 deposit.
But the builder missed two deadlines for completion of the home, says Pinkney; ground hadn't even been broken by one deadline, in July 1999. Williams sent Pinkney a letter attributing the delay to the county's installation of sidewalks and drains in the area. Pinkney says his mortgage company, Capital Mortgage, told him that his bank did not want to finance any homes with 100 Black Men. "They said it wasn't a reputable organization," says Pinkney.
In a letter sent from Sterling Bank to Pinkney, W.H. Mollnhauer, Jr., senior vice president, states the bank's loan committee rejected the program's builder, Forrest Construction, after "carefully reviewing the credit, the public records, the builder's letters of explanation and finding in the Florida Division of Corporate Status that the corporation is inactive."
Pinkney has now given up on the program and is buying a condo in west Broward. He hopes to get his $500 deposit back but isn't counting on it.
"I felt I was being lied to," he says. "It's very disappointing. Andre sang a good song but it kind of got old. He simply wasn't able to meet any of his deadlines."
Five other homebuyers contacted by New Times had similar stories -- although some say they are stuck in the program because they put down $3000 or more.
Williams assured Marsline Howell, a 24-year-old office worker, that her house would be ready before her son was born, she says. He's now six months old, and she is still living in a one-bedroom apartment; her son sleeps in a crib in the living room. Now Howell is sorry she didn't buy an existing home as she originally planned.
Howell's house has progressed further than any other: Her walls and roof are now up. The only other visible progress is two lots away, where a foundation has been poured.
But Howell no longer wants the house. Her mortgage company told her the house is 18 inches below elevation -- something echoed by Eugene Frank, president of the Washington Park Homeowners Association and also a contractor. "It's definitely too low," he says. Indeed, to the casual eye, the house appears to be well below the level of the road.
Howell says she's happy she found out about the problem before it was too late. She can just imagine her house flooded after the first good rain: "I think God intervened, because I could have been on Channel 7 with galoshes on," she says.
Williams acknowledges making mistakes during what has been a monumental learning process but insists the program's noble and aboveboard. "Are there growing pains? Yes," says Williams. "Should we have been conservative and said it would take one and a half years instead of six months? Yes. Then, if we finished early, everyone would have been happy."
He insists Howell's house has been built according to South Florida building code, displaying Broward County building inspection approvals. Just to be sure, he sent another engineer to check it Friday.
Williams insists he is perfectly within his rights to refuse to return deposits and sue anyone who backs out after signing a contract. "What do you think Arvida would do," he asks. "We have spent $40,000 on Marsline Howell's house."
The heart of the problem, he says, lies with Frank Vargas and his company, Capital Mortgage. He accuses Vargas, who also has a real-estate division, of trying to steal his clients, and says one of the changes his board has recently implemented is to only deal with mortgage companies who are in business to do only that.
Vargas says he only offered other properties to the homebuyers who said they were pulling out of the 100 Black Men project. "I felt bad for them, and I said I would not require another down payment," he says.
Williams again acknowledges he missed deadlines, but says, "This is a new program. There is a learning curve."
But Howell doesn't buy Williams' excuses. "If you're really trying to do something positive and it's not working out, you apologize and give us an opportunity to back out. He's still saying everything is perfect. It's a shame he would do this to his own people in his own neighborhood."
Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address:
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.