Tangled Up in Red Tape
If there's a lesson to be gleaned from Gloria Thomas' two-year wrangle with Fort Lauderdale's code-enforcement department, it's that having your heart in the right place isn't enough. Even if you want to help others, you'll still have to navigate the morass of city bureaucracy.
Thomas had good intentions when she bought her building at 1227 Sistrunk Blvd. in October 1997, for $130,000. She envisioned her wedding business in the front, where the large plate glass window would offer good exposure, and a social service agency occupying the rest of the building. She had big plans to teach people computer and office skills, establish a prison ministry, and found a drug rehab program. All she had to do was look around her property to see the need. "You see people around here laying on the ground, sleeping on the benches, hanging around," she says. "There's so much we could do."
There would be plenty of room for all of it. The two-story building, built in 1959, has 3300 square feet of office space on the ground floor and five one-bedroom apartments upstairs.
And Thomas certainly has the background. Once a mother of two on welfare in Philadelphia, she earned a college degree in counseling with the help of Opportunities Industrialization Centers, a 35-year-old training program that operates in 35 states. In fact, she thinks her building would be perfect for a new Broward OIC program, an idea OIC officials are considering. The organization already has programs in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. "The need [in Broward] is very great," says Rev. Maurice Dawkins, chairman of the board for OIC in South Florida. "What you have is people falling through the safety net."
But two years after she bought it, Thomas' building is a mess. One of the front windows is shattered and boarded up. The paint is peeling. Inside is a jumble of floral shop equipment and flower arrangements, furniture, and junk. There's an old piano near the front door, a couple of pool tables in the back, and rooms piled high with clothes, tires, small appliances, and everything else one tends to accumulate in life. "As you can see I never throw anything out," says Thomas.
Upstairs the apartments are empty, the occupants forced to move because the building doesn't meet code. In one apartment, clothes and furniture are strewn around as if whoever lived there had to leave in a hurry.
The rough condition of the building mirrors its neighborhood. Immediately to the east is a private club where the parking lot is bustling with people in the middle of a recent Thursday afternoon. A steady stream of cars pulls in and then backs out onto Sistrunk. Across the street is a liquor store with bars on the windows. Outside the liquor store, a handful of men sit on the steps taking pulls from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Thomas says drug dealers and prostitutes are fond of the alley between her property and the private club. "I'm always cleaning up beer cans, and you should see all the condoms I find there," she says.
Her dream of helping others is still alive, though it's not very well. The city thinks Thomas' building is unsafe and won't allow her to occupy it. So it's basically a big, expensive storage unit. With the monthly mortgage and insurance bills piling up at the rate of $20,000 a year, Thomas can't afford another place to put her stuff. Her aspirations on hold, she's taken a job as a security guard at a gated community in Coral Springs.
Her troubles began two days after she closed on the building, when code-enforcement officers came by for an inspection and found a laundry list of problems, some small and some not. An improperly installed air conditioner caught their attention, as did doors, windows, and a pay phone that had been put in without a permit.
More troublesome were problems with the wiring, plumbing, and the ceiling that could make the place a fire hazard, says Bob Pignataro, an inspector with the city's Fire, Rescue and Building Department. "Some of these are life-threatening."
Thomas can't blame the city for all her woes. She didn't do her homework when she bought the place. Had she checked with the city or had the building inspected before the purchase, she would have learned that a lot of the work done by the previous owner was done without permits and didn't meet code.
"The guy I bought the building off of, he said he had everything done in the building that needed to be done," she says now. "I took him at his word. He said nothing is wrong with this building except cosmetic things like painting. I know it's my fault."
In the two years since, Thomas has made a sincere effort to get the building in order. At the city's behest, her son took down a fence that surrounded the property and cleaned up the parking lot. She hired an architect to come up with plans for renovations that would bring the building into compliance. She hired a general contractor to do the work and even pulled the necessary permits.
But she's had a little trouble with follow-up. Her crew almost finished the electrical work when it got called away to other jobs. Thomas let the permits lapse without getting the work inspected. Now she has to renew the permits or start the work over.
Meanwhile the violations keep piling up. Pignataro drove by one weekend and noticed that people were inside the building, gathered around an antique piano near the front door, singing. The building wasn't supposed to be occupied at all, so he added a violation for operating a business without an occupational license to the list. Another inspector tacked on a violation for not maintaining and landscaping the parking lot, even though the building's not open for business.
At one time she could have covered a good part of the $100,000 or so it will take to get the building fixed herself. Now she'll need a loan for all of it. Her opinion of the code-enforcement department has understandably soured. She thinks they're harassing her. "They have really had a gun on my head for two years," she says. "The only thing that is left now is for them to pull the trigger."
Pignataro is also frustrated. Generally he gives code violators 30 days to come into compliance before taking them to the code-violations board, where fines can be assessed. Thomas has had two years. "We have bent over backwards," he says. "We have allowed [electrical service to be continued] against the wishes of the code department, and we still haven't got any compliance."
Is this a case of overzealous code enforcement or a lack of understanding of the rules? Probably both. But what Thomas' story demonstrates is a lack of follow-through at city hall. While Fort Lauderdale has programs aimed specifically at improving the blighted Sistrunk corridor, Thomas couldn't find anyone to steer her through the process, to make sure she got connected with the right people. An opportunity to rescue a building may have been lost.
She sought help from District 3 commissioner Carlton Moore, who she says told her only that she shouldn't be operating a business out of the building without a permit. (Moore refused to talk on the phone with New Times, insisting that questions be faxed to his office. When they were, he did not respond.) She also met with economic-development manager Phil Bacon and zoning administrator Greg Brewton. "I didn't get any help," she says.
Brewton didn't return phone calls for this story. Bacon did and says there are several sources of money Thomas could potentially tap, including low-interest loans and a façade program that would give her up to $7500 to improve the building's exterior and parking lot. Without passing judgment on Thomas' credit history or business acumen, he notes that there is an expectation that the money will be paid back, meaning not everyone in an enterprise zone qualifies. "I think a business has to meet a certain threshold," he says. "It has to have some potential for revenue. I don't think that's unreasonable."
Pignataro finally brought the case before the code-enforcement board last week. Thomas was facing fines of up to $250 per day, but she caught a break -- 180 days to come into compliance before the fines kick in. "Based on the pictures I saw, it's a pretty nice building, but it's in pretty bad shape," board member Gerald Jordan said at the meeting. "We'll bend over backwards for you ma'am. We'll give you six more months. I don't think we're that generous with many people for a building in this condition."
The board even offered to hook Thomas up with the city's economic-development department to see what money might be available. This seems like good news, but Thomas says she's heard it all before. "These are the same people we've already been to," she says. "We're just going around in a circle."
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.