FORT LAUDERDALE — The executive director of a non-profit agency designed to help lower-income, first-time home buyers has used the program to build a house for herself at a discount, according to a South Florida Times investigation.
Jacqueline Tufts, who oversees the New Visions Community Development Corp., directed the agency to build her new home, with improperly documented upgrades, on a lot that was donated to the agency by the city of Fort Lauderdale’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA uses property tax dollars to improve blighted areas.
Tufts also paid $16,000 less for her home than she charged a New Visions client for a similar home next to it. She also ordered major structural upgrades, records show. The contractor said she paid for the upgrades separately, and that’s why the price of the upgrades is not reflected in the purchase price.
The investigation has also revealed that New Visions provided discounted homes and free land to some former board members, the CEO’s daughter, and at least one developer who contracted with the agency to do construction projects. One of the banks that handles the loans to the agency’s clients is now conducting an internal review of the loans.
Tufts has also been paying some senior Broward County Housing Authority staff to moonlight for her office, conducting counseling sessions with New Visions clients, a possible violation of county regulations.
Tufts, who makes $70,000 a year, insists that she has done nothing wrong.
“I paid market price for my house and my lot. It is included in the pro forma I did, so I never got any free land and our board approved it,” Tufts said.
Official property records and Tufts’ mortgage documents, however, contradict some of her assertions.
Among other things, records show that the Fort Lauderdale CRA granted the lot on which Tufts’ home is built to the agency she runs in August 2002. At the time that her home’s construction was completed in June of this year, the land had an assessed value of $54,570, according to records on file with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office. Records also show that Tufts signed, and New Visions paid for, permits and other construction-related fees on her home.
The new homes are located in Sweeting Estates, a neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale that is north of Sistrunk Boulevard. The area is designated as a city redevelopment zone.
Over the past decade, the city of Fort Lauderdale, mostly through its CRA, has invested in water, sewer, roadway and other infrastructure improvements there. The upgrades were done at no cost to the homeowners, which is a direct subsidy that buyers in the open market do not enjoy.
The CRA has also acquired and torn down dilapidated properties in that area, then granted the land to New Visions at no charge, for the construction of the new homes.
When a reporter asked Tufts to provide documentation of her purchase of her new home’s lot, she would not do so.
On paper, the home Tufts purchased for $216,000 through her agency 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 provided to New Visions by the CRA.
But a review of the completed construction blueprints filed with the city of Fort Lauderdale’s Building Department shows that major changes and upgrades were made to the original project, during the home’s construction.
After a South Florida Times reporter contacted the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office about the discrepancy, an employee from that office went to the house, measured it from the outside, and recorded that the home is actually 2,187 square feet.
Among the upgrades are structural changes to the roof, an area that would have been a covered patio that was replaced with a den, and another covered patio that was added to a corner of the home on the ground floor. On the second level, the master bedroom and bathroom were expanded by joining them with another bedroom.
None of those changes or the increased size of the home were reflected in the records on file with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office. Tufts did not respond to questions about the discrepancy, but the home’s building contractor, HBR Developers of West Palm Beach, said New Visions is responsible for filing the proper paperwork for its projects.
Tufts also owns another home in Miramar – where she used to live – that is valued at $196,100. After her new home was completed in the Sweeting Estates neighborhood, Tufts moved into the new home, then entered into a contract with the Broward County Housing Authority to rent her Miramar house to the Housing Authority’s clients through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program.
New Visions has been highly touted for its success at rehabilitating dilapidated properties in distressed neighborhoods, and helping low- to moderate-income individuals and families obtain homeownership.
But the fact that the agency’s executive director used the program for her own benefit has raised questions from at least one other homeowner who used the program.
Shawanda Small, a 40-year-old single mother of two, used the New Visions program to purchase her first home at a cost of $232,000. She questions the $16,000 difference between the price set by
Tufts for her own home and the price Tufts set for Small’s home. The homes are adjacent to one another and had the exact same designs – at least on paper.
“Our homes are almost exactly the same, located right next door to each other, and they were built by the same contractor, at the same time,” Small said. “She’s the director, and sets all of the prices for the houses, and gave herself a $16,000 discount, and I don’t think it’s right for her to get a house through the program particularly since she already has a home.”
SETTING THE PRICES
Tufts acknowledged setting the prices for the homes sold through the agency, including her own. She insists she has done nothing wrong, though, because New Visions’ board of directors approved the purchase at its June 16, 2006 meeting.
Tufts would not produce documentation to substantiate how she arrived at the sale prices.
“That’s something we never give out to clients. But I just added $32,000 to the cost of both our homes across the board to reach the final prices,” Tufts said of the price differences. “I really thought I was being fair. I do set all of the prices.’’
Although records show that the New Visions board did not approve her home purchase until 2006, Tufts said, “We do a pro forma [analysis] and this is how we arrive at the prices. I entered into my contract in 2005 after the board approved it, and Mrs. Small’s contract was signed years later, so due to the cost of houses going up, that’s why she paid more.’’
JUST A MISUNDERSTANDING?
New Visions is based in Fort Lauderdale and is affiliated with Mount Bethel Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Clarence “C. E.” Glover, created the agency in 1997, and he is its CEO.
Glover said his daughter is among the people who used New Visions to build her home in Sweeting Estates.
“I met with Mrs. Small, and she did raise some issues and we are working to get explanations,” Glover said. “We have nothing to hide because we help many people here, and if anything improper has occurred, it will be addressed.’’
Glover said that as with any organization, misunderstandings may occur, but he stressed that the agency is focused solely on assisting people. He pointed to New Visions’ work in helping hundreds of people obtain homeownership who otherwise would not have been able to do so.
Small also questioned why New Visions board member Eugene Simmons of Miami-based City National Bank generated her mortgage. Simmons, who is the designee of the bank on the New Visions board of directors and the owner of ENS Consulting Services, did not return repeated calls, or respond to emails seeking comment.
Tufts said Simmons processed Small’s mortgage through the bank, but he had no involvement in Tufts’ mortgage.
Small also questioned Tufts’ rental of her first house in Miramar. According to records obtained by the South Florida Times, Tufts receives $1,450 per month in rent for that property; $1,266 of which comes directly from county rent subsidies.
“This doesn’t look right because while I’m trying to make it, it looks as if she gave herself a discount, and is making money from renting another house,” Small said.
Additionally, like Simmons, Tufts said other board members regularly do business with the agency and its clients.
“Yes, all of our board members do business with us, and Mr. Simmons does most of our clients’ mortgages,” Tufts acknowledged.
She also said the practice is done mostly for convenience and does not represent any conflict of interest. She said the agency’s attorney had not advised, or provided any training on, the conflict of interest clauses of the state, local and federal agencies that fund their programs.
William Shockett, the general counsel for City National Bank, said the bank is now investigating the Small mortgage transaction.
“The bank does this as a community service, and we make loans to clients of New Visions. We’re trying to research this, and I don’t know Ms. Tufts, or how they arrived at the price,” Shockett said.
“We are looking at Simmons’ involvement. Our intention is to provide these people with services so they can buy the houses, and we have never had an issue like this come up before, and we take it very seriously.’’
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Jacqueline Tufts