FORT LAUDERDALE — A family of five that found themselves homeless after a city of Fort Lauderdale housing rehabilitation program demolished their dilapidated house and then reneged on a contract to build them a new one has won a $192,000 jury verdict.
A jury found that the city breached its contract to build the Bonner family a new home. The Bonners were awarded $157,000 for a replacement home and $35,000 to buy them a new lot.
“I’m pleased with the verdict because this family has gone through so much,” said Scott Leeds, the attorney representing Henry and Andrea Bonner.
It was unclear whether the city will appeal the verdict. City Attorney Harry Stewart said “There will be a closed-door meeting with the city commission next week to discuss this litigation.”
The Bonners filed the lawsuit in 2008 also seeking costs for past and future expenses associated with leasing a temporary place to live and storage for their belongings but none were granted.
The jury did find for the city on its countersuit that claimed the Bonners committed fraud and provided false information by not disclosing interest they had in another property when applying to the program.
The city was awarded $10,000 in damages, leaving the Bonners with a net verdict of $182,000.
“I’m disappointed in the jury’s failure to comprehend that Henry and Andrea Bonner are the victims of an obvious land scam taking place in Fort Lauderdale,” Leeds said.
Leeds said he has filed several post-trial motions for attorney’s fees and interest dating back to when the city demolished the Bonner’s home in 2006.
“I am also preparing to file a motion for a new trial on the award,” Leeds said. “The Bonners committed no fraud. They are the victims and the city used an error to take their home and not fulfill its obligations.”
The Bonner case began in 2004, when they were cited for code violations and were told about the city’s Substantial Rehabilitation/Replacement Program which aims to bring rundown properties up to current living standards. Zero-interest loans and mortgages are available for repairs or demolition of homes and new construction of dwellings that are beyond repair.
Applicants must live in the city and their household income must not exceed $55,850 for a family of six, under guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additionally, the home in question must not be valued at more than $137,360.50 and the family’s total assets must not exceed $50,000.
The Bonners’ initial application to the program in 2004 was rejected due to their having an interest in two other properties. They divested their interest in those properties and re-applied in 2005.
The city approved the second application and relocated the family, paying $1,400 per month for their temporary housing. An additional $333.90 each month was paid to put their belongings in storage.
The city had their dilapidated home, located at 2328 N.W. 14th St., demolished on Jan. 27, 2006, but did not contact the mortgage holder about the program or the demolition. The Bonners had continue paying the $760 per month on the outstanding $79,000 mortgage and property taxes on what was then an empty lot. The city then awarded a contract to a builder to begin construction on a new home for the family.
After a series of city-related delays and more than 19 months after the Bonners’ home was demolished, Assistant City Attorney Bob Dunckel ruled that the family did not meet the housing program’s guidelines after all.
One of the properties they had an interest in was a two-bedroom, 655 square-foot home that was bequeathed to a family trust. City officials said Henry Bonner was still listed as a member of the trust. It is currently appraised at $39,190, but the officials concluded his interest made the family too wealthy for the housing program — even though city staff told the family nearly two years earlier that the issue was resolved.
“In my opinion the Quit Claim Deed from Henry and Andrea Bonner to Patty Daniels is not sufficient to divest the Trust of fee simple title to parcel two,” Dunckel wrote in an Aug. 17, 2007, letter to Chris Smith, the Bonners’ attorney and a state representative at the time who is now a state senator.
The program’s funding had been capped at $198,000 per family but construction on the Bonners’ home had reached an estimated $223,303 by 2008, due to city delays and increased construction costs.
City officials wanted the Bonners to agree to new a loan and contract with different terms in order to complete their home. Smith, their attorney at the time, countered with revised terms of the new proposals but those were rejected by the city.
After the Bonners refused to sign the city’s new contract, city officials stopped paying the rent on their temporary housing and storage facility in 2008. The family was evicted and then left homeless. Family members were displaced and separated for two years. They are now living out of a warehouse where Henry Bonner has been running a small engine repair business.
Photo: Andrea Bonner, left, Henry Bonner, center, and Shandrea Bonner stand in an empty lot where their demolished home once stood.