jacqueline-tufts_web.jpgFORT LAUDERDALE — New evidence has surfaced indicating that New Visions Community Development Corp. Executive Director Jacqueline Tufts has received special benefits and discounts intended only for the agency’s low-to-moderate income clients.

Last week, the South Florida Times reported that Tufts used her position at the non-profit to build a house for herself using discounts that were intended for clients who needed help in purchasing their homes.

Tufts told New Visions board members – and they apparently believed – that Tufts purchased her home at market value and paid for several upgrades that increased the size of the home, without the benefit of discounts or subsidies available to her clients.

The builder of the home, however, disputes that notion.

“We did do the upgrades on her home, but she didn’t pay me anything extra because I never added any profit, overhead, or other costs. It was done at-cost, the same price my subcontractor charged me because this is what we do for those in the program,” explained Harold Davidson, owner of HBR Developers, the firm under contract with New Visions to construct homes for the agency’s recipients.

Davidson said the upgrades totaled about $14,000, and his company did not pass along additional costs to Tufts.

“I did make some provisions as far as Jackie is concerned because we do have a relationship with her agency, but it’s no different than what I do for all New Visions clients,” Davidson said.

The issues surrounding Tufts’ home surfaced after Shawanda Small, a 40-year-old single mother of two who utilized New Visions to purchase her home at a cost of $232,000, questioned the $16,000 discount Tufts set for her own home, even though the two homes are the same, at least on paper, and are located next door to each other. Both were built by HBR.

In an interview with the newspaper last week, Tufts said she paid full market value for her home and that she did not receive any of her agency’s benefits in the purchase. She attributed the price differences to inflation between 2005 when she signed her contract, and 2007 when Small entered into her agreement.

Yet records show the construction cost of the houses to New Visions was $170,000 each. Both houses were completed earlier this year.

Tufts has since not responded to emails from the newspaper seeking comment, and has not returned calls. But on Dec. 12, she distributed an email to local elected officials, members of New Visions’ board of directors and others, explaining her actions.

“Although I feel I have not done anything wrong or tried to mislead anyone or abuse this program, I feel I need to write to all of you to give my side of the story because there are always two sides to every story,” Tufts email states.

In the email, Tufts also states that her purchase of the home was actually a selling point to encourage other people to buy in the area.

“One of the ways I got some of our buyers to go into that neighborhood was to tell them that I was buying in that neighborhood and that I would not put them somewhere I did not believe in myself,’’ Tufts wrote in the email. “I believed in the neighborhood so much that I was purchasing there as well.  I did not set out to hurt or harm anyone.’’

Records show that in 2006, the New Visions board was made aware of the fact that Tufts was in the process of having a home built by the agency.  At the time,
Tufts explained she was doing it to demonstrate the neighborhood was a safe place to live and to attract higher income, professionals to the area.

The homes are in Sweeting Estates, an economically depressed neighborhood south of Sistrunk Boulevard in northwest Fort Lauderdale that is in an area slated by the city for redevelopment.

During a July 15, 2006 meeting, New Visions’ board members approved Tufts’ home construction, with the provision that she purchase it at market value and that she would pay the costs to manage the construction.

On paper, Tufts home is a 1,926-square foot, two-story, four-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home, with a two-car garage that sits on a double corner lot. But the South Florida Times investigation found that the home is larger, at 2,187-square feet, a 261-square foot difference from what was recorded initially with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office. The increase in size is due to the additional work on the home.

New Visions contractors acknowledge – and blueprints confirm – that an additional den, a covered patio and structural changes were added to the first floor of Tufts’ home. An enlarged master bedroom and bath, as well as a reconfigured floor plan and roof changes were completed on the second level during construction, all at a discount usually reserved for the agency’s low- to moderate-income clients. Tufts makes $70,000 a year as the agency’s executive director.

The home upgrades are in addition to the land, permitting and administrative costs her agency provided to her at no charge.

Tufts has been adamant that she paid Banc of America CDC for the land, and that she signed a contract with them in 2005 to build her home.

Records show, however, that Banc of America did not own the lot, but rather it was Sweeting Associates, LLC, a subsidiary of New Visions, which owned the land and later granted it to Tufts in July 2008. The land was originally owned by the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency, which uses tax dollars to redevelop blighted areas. The CRA donated the land to Sweeting Associates.

Sweeting Associates, LLC is a corporation that was set up in August 2000 by a New Visions attorney. It now operates out of the agency’s Fort Lauderdale offices. The corporation was a collaboration between New Visions and Banc of America CDC. Banc of America CDC, however, sold its interest to New Visions in 2006. That means Sweeting Associates LLC was a wholly owned subsidiary of New Visions when Tufts was given the land for her house in July 2008.

“The Banc of America Community Development Corporation transferred its interest in Sweeting Associates, LLC to New Visions CDC in March 2006,” Bank of America spokeswoman Nicole Nastacie wrote in an email to the newspaper.

“At the same time, it took back a note from Sweeting Associates, LLC representing its remaining equity investment in the four lots upon which single-family houses were to be developed. This note was repaid in equal installments upon the sale of the houses that Sweeting Associates, LLC developed upon those lots,” Nastacie wrote.

According to documents on file with the Florida Department of State, Tufts’ signature is on some incorporation documents that Sweeting Associates submitted to that department.

When asked if Tufts paid the corporation for her lot, Nastacie said, “The Banc of America CDC does not loan to individuals.”

Tufts’ email to supporters criticizes HBR Developers and accuses them of disclosing information to Small about the price Tufts paid for her home.

“I have no idea, nor am I interested in the price they sell their homes for,” said Harold Davidson, the HBR Development CEO. “What she wrote is not true, and absolutely false and for whatever reason she is slandering our name over something we have no involvement in.’’

The Tufts email also labeled the news article as “unfair and misleading” and described Small as a “disgruntled buyer.”

“Ms. Small fell out of so many other programs because she was trying to qualify under a subsidized program,” Tufts said in her email, stating that she assisted
Small in attaining homeownership. “It is apparent that no matter how many people you try to help, there is always one spoiled apple in the whole bunch.’’

Small expressed outrage after learning of Tufts’ email. She said she has an excellent credit score but had too much cash on hand to qualify for other programs. She also questioned why New Visions has her in a balloon mortgage instead of a conventional one, meaning that at some point she will have to pay off the entire balance of the loan at once, instead of over a long period of time.

Small said the balloon mortgage is odd considering that she more than met the qualifications for a more conventional mortgage.

“I am not a disgruntled homebuyer. I am a hard-working single mother trying to make an honest living,” Small said. “I love my new home and HBR Developers did an excellent job and I have nothing but praise for them, but I’m disappointed Ms. Tufts disclosed my personal information, and is acting careless and unprofessional and that’s why I’m thinking about contacting an attorney.”


Editor’s note: For the full text of Jacqueline Tufts’ email to her supporters and to hear other viewpoints about the construction of her house in Sweeting Estates, turn to page 6A, or log onto sfltimes.com and go to the Opinion section.

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Jacqueline Tufts