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South Florida's Housing Crisis Leaves Behind Ghost Towers

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Tom, a 30-year-old renter who declined to give his last name, complains that the building has too many maintenance problems. His bathroom door was installed backward, the dishwasher leaks, and the gym spa was closed for a long time because it had trouble meeting city building-code requirements. "I think they just threw the building up too fast," says Tom, who was walking his dog on Young Circle on a recent evening.

And although Gordon described a building populated by young professionals, families, and older residents, Tom still can't get past the relative emptiness. "It feels like the movie The Shining when you're walking down the hallway," he says.

Gardner concedes that his company is still addressing maintenance issues covered under a one-year warranty. As for the spa, "there were typical construction issues that delayed final completion of one amenity."

Meanwhile, owners have downgraded their expectations. The days of flipping and quick profit are gone. Gordon's attorney told her she'd have to live at Radius for a decade to earn her money back. But she doesn't seem to mind. "It's my first time buying anything," she says. "I got a great deal."

Crime and Punishment: Villa Medici, Fort Lauderdale

On a blazingly sunny afternoon, the arms of the front gate to Villa Medici are raised. The guard's shaded hut is empty, blind to the black Jeep that rolls by, windows down and bass line pounding.

Here on 17th Way in Fort Lauderdale, the rows of three-story townhouses are mostly quiet, their brick walkways shaded by tall palm trees. They are painted hues of orange and cream, accented with Spanish tile roofs. From the outside, they fit the picture of half-million-dollar homes in walking distance of the beach.

Step a little closer, though, and realtors' key lock boxes can be seen on many of the townhouse doors, indicating that they are for sale. It's possible to peek in the ground-floor window of some units and see bare carpet and open closets. One door bears an orange flier announcing that the property is vacant and abandoned; another broadcasts an eviction.

Four years ago, when the complex was under construction, developer Shelby Homes was experiencing such a sales boom that it had to raise prices and cut back on ads for some of its projects. Villa Medici was supposed to bring a "new level of luxury" to Fort Lauderdale, with some units boasting private elevators. As recently as March 2008, one townhouse sold for $675,000.

But the complex has since become an uncomfortable example of how crime and a collapsing economy can sabotage a development. Andrea Stern began renting in Villa Medici in May 2008 and witnessed the downfall firsthand. (Disclosure: Stern works in the advertising department at New Times.) First, she was robbed. A burglar broke in through an open garage door while she and her roommate were sleeping and stole her Toyota Scion, two Wiis, her laptop, even her vodka. It was awful, but she acknowledged she and her roommate shared some of the blame for leaving the entrance to the house unlocked.

Then on September 18, her roommate woke her up to report that police had barricaded the neighborhood. The burglaries had become violent.

According to a police report, Richard Shepherd was upstairs in his townhouse watching TV when he heard a doorknob turn. His dog started barking and ran downstairs. Shepherd, 26, told police he figured it was a friend coming to visit, letting himself in because he'd left the door unlocked. Just as he was getting up to investigate, he heard a gunshot, then the pitiful sound of his dog whimpering.

As a panicked Shepherd called police, the man who shot his dog had already found more victims. A few doors down, Viviana Garguilo and 11-year-old Valeria Balcarce had just pulled into their garage and were getting out of the car when a man with a gun tried to push Valeria away from the driver's-side door, according to a police report. Valeria and Garguilo started screaming. Richard Garguilo ran downstairs to find out what was causing all the commotion and opened the door just long enough for his wife and daughter to escape inside. Then he heard a pop. Apparently the burglar, unable to steal the first car, had put a bullet in the windshield of Garguilo's Toyota.

(Neither Shepherd nor the Garguilos could be reached for comment.)

Watching Shepherd's dog be taken away in a body bag, Stern knew she'd had enough of Villa Medici. "After that, a lot of people got scared," she says. She moved out that month.

Since then, Fort Lauderdale police records show there haven't been any more burglaries reported at the complex. Most of the calls to police now are for cars to be towed. But that doesn't mean the fear has disappeared.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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