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Hollywood tenants pushed out for upscale housing sue for relocation assistance

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hollywood Circle's proposed 25-story housing and hotel project at Young Circle.

Hollywood Circle’s proposed 25-story housing and hotel project at Young Circle.

Residents of a Hollywood apartment building say they are entitled to relocation assistance after they were forced out of their homes on short notice to make way for a city-sponsored, multi-million dollar redevelopment plan.

The residents made the allegations in a class action lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court by Legal Aid Service of Broward County. The suit seeks monetary damages against the city of Hollywood and the project developer, Hollywood Circle LLC.

The city and the developer failed to establish a required tenant relocation assistance plan and to provide adequate public notice to Townhouse Apartments residents before approving the most recent development agreement, the complaint says.

Residents allegedly received no direct notice regarding possible demolition of their building. In addition, the suit claimed the operators of the complex used unfair and deceptive measures in renting the apartments in the months prior to the eviction notices.

Tenants were ordered to move at the beginning of the winter tourist season in late 2013, forcing them to incur higher rents or settle for less desirable housing than they could afford, the lawsuit says.

Those who were forced to move included a 70-year-old man who had lived at Townhouse Apartments for 19 years. The complex, just off Young Circle, was near shopping and public transportation, a convenience because some of the tenants did not have personal transportation.

WORKING CLASS PEOPLE FORCED OUT

“These were working-class people,” said Sharon Bourassa, the Legal Aid attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of most of the former residents. “It would be easy [for the developer] to do the right thing. But they would rather fight this and pay big legal fees…than settle with these people [tenants]. … They want to put up a big money-maker.”

Legal Aid provides free civil legal advice, representation and education to the disadvantaged of Broward County.

Townhouse Apartments, at 1776 Polk St., and other properties near Young Circle in downtown Hollywood, have been designated by the city as being located in a blighted area as defined under the state’s Community Redevelopment Act. With that designation, the city would divert increased property taxes to developers to spur urban renewal.

Developer Hollywood Circle, which currently does business as Townhouse Apartments, plans to build a 25-story upscale housing complex with 397 apartments and 104 hotel rooms.

The lawsuit, filed in May, asserts that ousted residents are due relocation assistance, but that the city failed to set up a plan under both state law and a related city ordinance governing community development projects. The developer’s agreement with the city obliges the developer to do the same, the lawsuit says.

In response to Legal Aid‘s lawsuit, the city last week denied that it had any responsibility to assist the tenants and asked the court to dismiss the case. The city has rejected requests by Legal Aid to pay each tenant $4,000 in relocation assistance, according to City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel.

‘PREPOSTEROUS’ LAWSUIT

“We believe it’s preposterous,’’ Sheffel said of the allegations in the lawsuit.

According to Sheffel, the city provided adequate notice of public hearings about the redevelopment project. He said residents were aware of possibly having to move because they had been paying rent on a month-to-month basis.

“There was an abundance of affordable rentals in that area,” he said. The lawsuit acknowledges that rentals existed, but said they were generally less desirable or more expensive.

Lawyers for Hollywood Circle said their client was under no obligation to provide a relocation plan or assistance, arguing that the lawsuit “improperly seeks to join Defendant City of Hollywood with Defendant Hollywood Circle as if they have the same obligation and duties.”

Similarly, the developer’s court filings maintain that public hearing notices on different aspects of the development agreement were the obligation of the city. They also denied that deceptive and unfair practices were used in renting the apartments before the order to vacate.

Matthew J. Feeley, of Miami’s Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, represents Hollywood Circle. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Real estate developer Charles “Chip” Abele Jr. is Hollywood Circle’s managing director. He did not respond to a request for comment via a public relations firm.

DEMOLITION PERMIT ISSUED

The owner of the current Townhouse Apartments, a 12-story building, is Block 55 LLC, which merged last year with the Hollywood Circle development firm. It obtained a demolition permit from the city on June 19.

Legal Aid Service countered last week by seeking an injunction to block demolition of the old building until the lawsuit is settled. A hearing on the request for an injunction is scheduled for today, July 2.

The case is before Broward Circuit Judge John J. Murphy.

The move to redevelop the Townhouse Apartments property began in July 2004, when the city of Hollywood and its Community Redevelopment Agency entered into a development agreement with SFD@Hollywood LLC to replace the building with a project of 500 “upscale residential units,” 125,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space and parking. The estimated value at completion was $250 million.

To assist the project, the agreement called for the city and its redevelopment agency to pay the developer up to $14.5 million over a period of approximately 20 years.

That agreement changed in October 2006, including the addition of a provision that “…developer will coordinate any tenant relocation program with and through the city’s Housing Division.” Some time afterwards, SFD transferred the agreement and interest in Townhouse Apartments to Block 55.

The development agreement was altered again in 2012 to reduce the number of residential units in the proposed 25-story high rise to 397 and to add 104 hotel units, commercial space and parking. The new agreement also excluded the 2006 provision regarding relocation assistance.

Months later, Block 55 merged with Hollywood Circle LLC, which acquired the development agreement, according to the lawsuit.

PROPERTY TAXES FOR DEVELOPER

The 2012 agreement also changed the payment structure. It stated the developer would receive half of the property tax increase generated by the project once completed. City documents stated the payments would continue until the expiration of the current Community Redevelopment Agency in 2025.

Legal Aid’s lawsuit contends that many of the tenants faced severe hardships when they were forced to leave Townhouse Apartments on short notice last year.

Glory Harris, 62, moved into the complex on June 1, 2013, paying first and last month’s rent and security, for a total of $1,800. Less than four months later, on Sept. 27, she received notice to vacate. Had she known of the owner’s intent she would not have moved in, the suit says.

Harris ultimately borrowed $2,160 to move to a more expensive apartment away from nearby shopping. Because she does not drive, she now pays someone to take her shopping.

Six-year resident Eanis Levinson, 68, asked management last August about a rumor that the building was going to be demolished. She paid September’s rent after being assured  “she had nothing worry about.”

On Sept. 27, she received notice to relocate and was soon “threatened and harassed” daily about moving. The stress led her to depart the following month, but she could only afford a room in a nearby house. Instead of a kitchen, she only has a hot plate.

Earl Martin, 70, a 19-year resident living on a fixed income, got a similar termination notice the same day. He found an efficiency apartment, but because of its small size had to dispose of much of his furniture and other belongings.

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