The house feels as if it belongs to a family trying to hang on, and Charlean Rhodes knows it. "I'm maintainin', you know, but I can't do no better than this," mutters the 55-year-old, small and frail in her pink blouse and white pants. Rhodes and her mother, Bertha, who have lived in the home since 1979, have for the last few years been watching the remnants of their past slip away. A month ago Charlean Rhodes opened a registered letter from Broward County informing her the county planned to seize and sell a piece of land on NW Ninth Court that she and her mother own. The lot is being sold to pay off $4612 in unpaid property taxes. Two months ago the county demolished a dilapidated 14-bed rooming house that stood there.
As the photos of smiling family members that line her mantel suggest, the situation wasn't always this bad. Charles Rhodes, Bertha's husband, came to Broward County a half-century ago from West Palm Beach and opened Roosevelt Gardens, a popular lounge on Sunrise Boulevard. The profits enabled him to buy several rooming houses in central Broward that provided his family with a good living for years.
But Charles died in 1996 at age 94. He intended the properties he had spent much of his life accumulating to support his wife and daughter. Charlean Rhodes's 16 years as a Broward County bus driver ended with a 1992 stroke, and these days she can't hold a regular job. She's unsteady on her feet and sometimes must search for words; the phrase "you know" fills the gaps in her slow speech.
Instead of providing support, Charles's gift has turned into an enormous burden because of ever-increasing county taxes. Charlean and Bertha used to own half a dozen rental properties, but they were unable to maintain them. As the buildings fell into disrepair, the county condemned and demolished each of them, then posted the cleanup cost on the Rhodes's property tax bill. "They add that every year, and it just keeps going, you know?" Charlean says, referring to the increasing balance with an upraised thumb. "Pssht -- they go up and up."
With the rental properties gone, Charlean tries to keep pace by cleaning boats and cars part-time, but she's still paying her old medical bills. "Empty lots don't make no money, you know, but you still got to pay taxes," she says. "You would be surprised, the money, just my own personal savings that I dipped into just to try and keep these places going. My savings done went dry trying to hold on."
Charlean and Bertha Rhodes are two of about 88,000 people who live in unincorporated areas scattered throughout Broward County. The women and others like them have seen their property taxes rise by a third since 1997, when the Broward County Commission passed a resolution stating that everyone in the county should live in a city by 2010. (Last week a committee of county leaders recommended moving the deadline to 2005, but the decision is not a law; places like Fort Lauderdale remain strongly opposed to annexing poor areas.)
Residents of unincorporated areas now pay about 25 percent more in property taxes than Broward city dwellers. And the gap will grow as 2010 approaches if cities continue the last few years' pattern of cherry-picking affluent neighborhoods and leaving behind poorer areas.
As tax-rich commercial areas were gobbled up by municipalities, each homeowner in the remaining unincorporated areas had to shoulder a greater share of the tax burden for urban services. It also costs the county more to offer services to scattered pockets than it does for a city to serve a compact mass. And less affluent neighborhoods need the most work to meet city infrastructure standards, making them unattractive for annexation. So the county's poorest people are stuck paying the highest taxes for the longest time.
The tax squeeze will likely tighten most on the people clustered in a mile-and-a-half-wide swath between Fort Lauderdale and Plantation, classified by the U.S. Census as tracts 411 and 413. With a population that is 97 percent black, the neighborhoods of Boulevard Gardens, Broward Estates, Franklin Park, Roosevelt Gardens, St. George, and Washington Park are the poorest areas outside cities. The per capita income in these places averages $8700, the lowest in unincorporated Broward County. These neighborhoods are the last on any city's annexation list.