Sample ImageThe city of Fort Lauderdale must repay thousands of dollars it improperly obtained from a state hurricane disaster recovery fund.

The money, totaling $11,777.60, was supposed to be used to repair and replace properties damaged by hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

Instead, the city used the funds  to pay rent and storage fees for a family whose home was declared unsafe, but was not damaged by a hurricane, a South Florida Times investigation has determined.

In its official invoices, requisitions and e-mails about the state funding, the city indicated that it was using the funds because of property damage caused by a hurricane. Yet internal city documents show that the damage to the house was not created by, or otherwise impacted by, any hurricanes at all.

The repayment order is the latest development in the case of a city program that was supposed to tear down a dilapidated home in the Dilllard Homes community, pay rent for the owners to stay in a temporary house, then build the family a new home.

But after tearing down the dilapidated two-bedroom, one-bath home, the city determined that Henry and Andrea Bonner were too wealthy to qualify for the city’s Substantial Rehabilitation/Replace-ment Program, and has refused to build the new house for the couple and their four children.

Ryan Orlando, a spokesman for the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, said the city improperly used hurricane funding to help the Bonners pay rent on the temporary home.

City officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Orlando said the city has agreed to repay the misused money.
The funds were part of the monies made available by the state Legislature in July 2005 to assist local governments and families subsidize recovery costs in the aftermath of hurricanes.

The Bonners were accepted into the Substantial Rehabilitation/ Replacement Program, and moved out of their home in June 2005, after the program’s inspectors determined it was structurally unsafe.

In September 2005, the program completed approval for the family to receive relocation and storage assistance payments until their new home construction was completed.

Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma made landfall in the area on Aug. 25 and Oct. 24, 2005, respectively; several months after the Bonners had been relocated and the home deemed unsafe.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush gave an executive order for disaster relief assistance following the hurricanes. The order expired in February 2006.

“[State Housing Initiative Program] funds are not generally eligible to be used for rental assistance, but are allowed under Executive Orders relating to hurricanes to assist families that may be displaced,” Orlando said in an email to the South Florida Times.

“This eligibility is tied directly to the Executive Order and expires when the order expires,’’ Orlando said. “In this case [Henry and Andrea Bonner], the SHIP monies for rental assistance ($11,777.60) were used after the Executive Order expired.”

That city program is set up to bring rundown properties up to current living standards through repairs, or, in the Bonners’ case, demolition of  an old home and promise to build a new one in its place.

The Housing Recovery Program is administered through the State Housing Initiative Program by the  Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC). There are guidelines on how the money can be obtained, and there are restrictions governing how the money can be used.

“Florida Housing staff has verbally directed city staff to reimburse the SHIP fund from other city funds for this amount. A written response will follow,” Orlando confirmed after being contacted about the South Florida Times investigation.
Family members say they were unaware the city had made such claims on their behalf.

“I can’t believe it. We moved out of the house months before Katrina or Wilma,” Henry Bonner said.

“I don’t know anything about any storms or hurricane damage. We just want our house built,” he said.

The program’s subcontractor, Miami Wrecking Company, demolished the home in January 2006. Bonner said this is the first time he has heard of the home, which was empty at the time, having any storm damage. His attorney, former state Rep. Chris Smith, concurred.

“I am not familiar with anything of that, so I can’t comment,” Smith said.

City records, however, detail a pattern of requests made for the funds, which falsely indicated they were related to disaster relief. Internal city emails, invoices, and copies of canceled checks further confirm the use of funds intended for hurricane victims.

Beginning Jan. 22, 2007, those records show city staff began submitting requests from the city’s Purchasing Division for money from the hurricane disaster recovery fund. The money was used to pay the $1,400 per month in rent to temporarily house the Bonner family elsewhere, and $333.90 each month to a warehouse facility that stores the family’s belongings. The requests started on the same day that the city approved a $156,840 purchase order  for McKenzie Construction Co. to build the family’s new home.

City attorneys in August 2007, however, determined that the family—some 19 months after their home had been demolished, and after they had received nearly two years’ worth of relocation payments—did not meet the program’s eligibility requirements.

The attorneys said Henry Bonner had a financial interest in another property, and it meant his total wealth exceeded the program’s $50,000 asset limit.

The Bonners denied any such ownership and continue to contest the decision, which has held up construction of the new home. Even so, payments from the disaster recovery fund continued, totaling $11, 777.60 as of Nov. 14, 2007.

Currently, the family continues to receive payments, however, documents verifying the source of those funds beyond November 2007 are not available, and city officials are not commenting.

City Manager George Gretsas has neither returned repeated calls from the South Florida Times, nor responded to directives from Mayor Jim Naugle and City Commissioner Christine Teel to answer the newspaper’s numerous e-mails.

Nevertheless, the Florida Housing Finance Corporation said the city’s refunding of the money is a start.

“Despite the fact that all SHIP funds will be reimbursed, the file will still be reviewed as part of a regular compliance monitoring visit to occur prior to June 30, 2008,” Orlando said.

These new developments are surfacing just a week after Naugle called for sweeping changes to the city’s housing programs after reading about the Bonners’ plight in the South Florida Times.

Under his proposal, Naugle would explore transferring the city’s dozen or so housing assistance and construction programs to the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, a federally funded agency whose members are appointed by the city commission.

Bonner said any reorganization is unlikely to affect his family’s immediate predicament of possible homelessness. The family’s lease expired last Sunday, March 9.  Bonner said city officials are not returning the family’s calls about future rent and storage fee payments.

Smith said he has submitted legal documentation to the city that he hopes clears up any questions about the family’s eligibility in the program.

Bonner said “We don’t have a lease, and there is no telling where we will be sleeping. This is not the way to treat anyone.”