Critics sue over plan for public housing

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Yet another Fort Lauderdale neighborhood is fighting City Hall over plans for unwanted new development - and has taken the additional step of hauling the city into court to try to stop it.

In court papers, the not-for-profit Trust for Historic Sailboat Bend claims the fix was in when the City Commission voted 5-0 in March to bulldoze and replace the Dr. Kennedy Homes public housing development. The vote, after a lengthy public hearing, reversed the city Historic Preservation Board's 2009 decision to deny demolition.

Now, trust officials say they have proof the city intended all along to approve the demolition: a letter Mayor Jack Seiler wrote in September expressing the city's "support" for the demolition and offering his "best wishes for the success" of the controversial replacement housing project.

"The mayor had his mind made up before the evidence was heard," said Trust Vice President Charles Jordan. "The quasi-judicial hearing over which he presided was a charade."

Some established neighborhoods would be eager to get rid of old, substandard public housing occupied by the poor. But in eclectic Sailboat Bend, critics of the housing authority's plans argue that demolition will destroy an important part of the city's history, displace some of its neediest citizens, and install development that is too big and out of character for the city's only officially designated historic district.

"This is a reverse NIMBY," said Jordan, using the "Not In My Back Yard" acronym. "This is in our backyard and an integral part of our community. We want it preserved."

Instead of eight gleaming new buildings up to five stories tall, the opponents want the existing 132 units completely renovated with the same new amenities, like air conditioning.

Using Seiler's letter as Exhibit A, trust leaders Paul Boggess and Donna Isaacs last week accused the mayor of selling out Sailboat Bend in an e-mail sent to friends.

In an interview, however, Seiler denied prejudging the case. He said his Sept. 14 letter to Tam English, executive director of the city Housing Authority, was for the specific purpose of supporting the authority's project application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Seiler added that he knew of no opposition to the authority's plans when he signed it.

"It is like a judge making a comment 10 years ago that he likes to protect dogs. Now, the judge is hearing a dog-abuse case and people say he prejudged the case because 10 years ago he said he liked to protect dogs," Seiler said.

Wrecking crews are on hold as the court ponders the trust's allegations in two related lawsuits filed in March and May that the commission's vote violated both the city code and constitutional due process requirements.

The due process violations involve alleged lobbying violations, and failures by commissioners to make adequate disclosure about the lobbying.

The city denied those allegations last month in a response filed in Broward Circuit Court.

Other Fort Lauderdale neighborhood groups have been at odds with the city this summer.

Idlewyld residents are resisting plans for a massive remake of Bahia Mar. Colee Hammock homeowners are looking to overturn the zoning board's July approval of First Presbyterian Church's expansion plans. And in Coral Ridge, neighbors are pushing the city to deny permission to Cardinal Gibbons High School to light up its football field.

The city housing authority, whose board is appointed by the mayor, owns and manages seven public housing sites and 612 units in the city. It is an independent agency, mostly funded by HUD, created under Florida law, according to City Attorney Harry Stewart.

Dr. Kennedy Homes is one of those public housing sites.

Built in the early 1940s, the Dr. Kennedy Homes is located on 8.5 acres in Sailboat Bend that front Broward Boulevard between Ninth and 11th avenues, south to Southwest Second Street. Its 132 units, many with porches, are occupied by those with very low incomes.

"The Dr. Kennedy Homes, in their original intent and their use today, helps tell the story of Fort Lauderdale," Merrilyn C. Rathbun, of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, told the city in March.

City housing officials, however, contend the units no longer meet proper living standards, and want to raze 42 of those one- and two-story cottages and replace them with eight modern, air-conditioned buildings up to five stories tall. Three existing cottages would be rehabilitated and preserved. The total number of housing units will remain the same.

The proposed $25 million development is a public-private partnership between the housing authority and Miami's Carlisle Development Group. The project is to be financed mostly with federal tax credits. It would provide affordable housing for the low income - $47,500 a year for a family of four. Fewer units would be available for the very poor.

"At the end of the day, it's a better place to live for our residents," housing authority lawyer Robert Lochrie told commissioners, according to a transcript of the March 2 hearing.

The 100-member Sailboat Bend Civic Association isn't a party to the lawsuit, but President David Parker and Vice President Alysa Plummer support its objective of quashing the commission's vote.

"We support the saving of Dr. Kennedy Homes. The housing authority wants to blow out an 8.5 acre hole in the middle of our historic district," said Plummer.

English, however, says those agitating against building a new Dr. Kennedy Homes with updates like air conditioning and washing machines are a tiny fraction of the approximately 600 people who live in Sailboat Bend.

"A silent majority supports what we are doing, yes," said English. "A lot of people want to see change, but they aren't the kind of people willing to go out on a limb and stand up and scream."

Residents who appeared at the March hearing generally favored the upgrade plans after hearing assurances that they will be given priority to return to the new Dr. Kennedy Homes and won't see their out-of-pocket rent go up.

But attorney Janet Riley, who heads Broward Legal Aid Service's affordable-housing advocacy project, said vulnerable residents have been misled by the authority about the future cost of rent, and whether they will be able to return after the place is rebuilt.

"This is last-resort housing," Riley said. "People pay 30 percent of their income, and if they lose that, where are they going to go?"

Broward Bulldog is a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. 954-603-1351

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