OAKLAND PARK — A family of five found itself homeless this week after the city of Fort Lauderdale tore down their dilapidated house and failed to honor its written promise to build a new one under a city program.
Henry and Andrea Bonner, along with three of their four children, were evicted Monday, Sept. 15 from the rented home they shared in Oakland Park while waiting for Fort Lauderdale to make good on its promise.
Now, Henry Bonner says he is forced to move in with his mother in northwest Fort Lauderdale. But due to the limited space there, and the family’s strained finances, his wife and three of his children must relocate to the home of his wife’s mother in Bradenton, which is more than 200 miles away.
“Unfortunately it’s always a sad day when a family gets broken up like this,” said Scott W. Leeds, an attorney with The Cochran Firm who is representing the family in a lawsuit against the city. “This city should be very ashamed of themselves for destroying these people’s lives through such callous indifference. It’s a disgrace. I will look into, and pursue every option and remedy available to address this eviction.’’
During a break from loading the family’s belongings into his SUV on Wednesday, Sept. 15, Henry Bonner said, “It really hurts to see my family going through this, but we just have to keep holding on.’’
As she and her husband loaded the family’s clothing and other belongings, Andrea Bonner said, “I don’t know what to say. It’s not fair, and human beings shouldn’t be treated this way.”
The city made the promise under a program that demolishes dilapidated homes in economically depressed neighborhoods, and replaces them with new ones.
After accepting the family into the program, relocating them temporarily to the rented house, and tearing down the family’s own home, the city decided that the family no longer qualified for the program, and refused to build the new house as agreed. Later, the city stopped making rent payments.
That led the landlord to evict the family from the temporary house for unpaid rent on Monday.
City officials said they were not aware of the family’s eviction until the South Florida Times contacted them on Wednesday. They stressed that it is not their responsibility or intention to see the family homeless.
“I was not aware they had been evicted, but I am aware we were writing them letters to inform them that we would stop paying the rent if they did not complete the paperwork required for them to continue getting the benefits,” Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Harry Stewart said.
The original home of Henry and Andrea Bonner was demolished under an agreement the family signed with the city’s Substantial Rehabilitation/Replacement Program, which is intended to bring rundown properties up to current living standards.
The program utilizes zero-interest loans and mortgages for eligible families. The money is slated for repairs and for demolition of homes that are beyond repair. The demolition portion of the program is supposed to replace the dilapidated properties with new homes at the same locations.
The city was paying rent for the Oakland Park home on the family’s behalf, while the Bonners awaited construction of the new home. The city was also paying rent to a storage facility where the family kept much of its furniture and other belongings until the new home was to be completed.
But more than 19 months after the original home was demolished, the city’s attorneys on Aug. 7, 2007, determined that the family did not meet the program’s criteria. The city’s attorneys initially said Henry Bonner held an interest in another property bequeathed to his family, and that this interest made the family too wealthy to qualify for the program, which is aimed at improving homes in low-income areas.
Bonner later transferred any ownership he may have had in that property to another person via a Quit Claim Deed, and that issue apparently was resolved, according to an internal memo from the city earlier this year.
The Bonners say they met the requirements at the time they were initially approved for the program, before their house was torn down, and they have produced letters from a manager in the program informing the city of this fact.
The family also contends that the program’s managers took too long to process their home construction, and that they are being used as scapegoats for the program’s mismanagement and inefficiencies.
A March 21 report published in the South Florida Times revealed that the program had improperly used state hurricane disaster funds to help pay expenses in
connection with the Bonner project. That money, totaling $11,777.60, was supposed to be used to repair and replace properties damaged by hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.
Instead, the program’s managers used the funds to pay rent and storage fees for the Bonner family by falsely claiming in official city documents that the Bonner home had been damaged by a hurricane.
In response to those published reports, officials with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, a state agency, ordered the city to repay the misused funds. Prosecutors with the Broward State Attorney’s Office also opened an inquiry into the matter, which is ongoing.
The Bonners said they were unaware of the misused funds until the newspaper reported on them. They say it is just one example of a program fraught with problems.
The Bonners were accepted into the city program in 2005, after city inspectors determined that their home was structurally unsafe. In January 2006, their home was demolished by the program and the family has been displaced and on the move since that time.
Although their home was demolished, the family continued to pay the $760 per month on the outstanding $79,000 mortgage they owed to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, and property taxes on the now empty lot where the old house once stood.
The city had been paying $1,400 per month in rent since 2006 for the temporary dwelling, and $333.90 each month to a storage facility that houses the family’s belongings until the new home was constructed.
The $333.90 per month for storage fees was cut off in August.
The conditions for the family’s eviction were created during an April 15 meeting where city commissioners, acting on a recommendation from City Manager George Gretsas, approved a measure that allowed for an increase of more than $25,000 in the home replacement plan’s cost.
The extra money was to cover the increased construction costs since the plan was approved more than two years ago, as well as rental and storage fees for the family until the home was finished.
Until that time, the program’s funding had been capped at $198,000 per family, but the project had reached an estimated completion cost of $223,303.
Before the vote, Commissioner Carlton Moore, who represents the northwest Fort Lauderdale District III where the family’s new home was slated for construction, put forth a motion to place a 48-hour ultimatum on the family. The ultimatum required the family to sign and accept new terms of the program, or have the city stop paying the rent and storage subsidies.
“I would like to amend the motion that is on our agenda backup tonight. I’d like to give this recipient 48 hours to come in and complete the necessary paperwork to be reconsidered to see if they meet the income guidelines,” Moore said. “And if they do not come in that 48 hours, that they are to be given a notice that we’re no longer paying their rent. That we’re no longer paying their storage.’’
The amended motion passed 4-to-1 with only Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom voting against it.
During the meeting, Moore criticized the family and openly questioned if they were not completing the paperwork in order to have the city continue paying their rent and storage fees.
On the same day the Bonners were being evicted as a result of his April 15 motion, Moore was preparing for his annual State of the District III address on Wednesday, and could not be reached for comment. He did not respond to messages left at his commission office seeking comment.
The Cochran Firm filed a 12-page, multiple-count lawsuit in Broward Circuit Court on Aug. 12, alleging – among other things – that the city breached its contract with the family, but that did not stop the eviction.
“Our position is that we had a program, and they wouldn’t put in the paperwork to participate in it, so we could complete the process or provide them with those benefits,” Stewart, the city attorney, said of the case.
Leeds, of The Cochran firm, balked at that notion.
“No one, I mean no reasonable person is going to buy that,” Leeds said. “This is a disgrace, and they are putting this family through this because of their errors.”
The pending lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for the cost to rebuild the Bonners a new home, and to cover past and future expenses the family has incurred while waiting for the program to build them a new home.
In the interim, the family’s future is uncertain.
“What will happen now is anybody’s guess, and my children are asking why are we [my wife] breaking up, and this hurts, even though we’ve explained the real situation to them,” Henry Bonner said.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Henry Bonner