By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Robert Mattson, 18, was stunned when two shipmates were killed when their U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship was attacked by mortar on the Saigon River while delivering ammunition to U.S. troops in 1969.
Now 63, Mattson says he was stunned again last December when he and fellow tenants at Townhouse Apartments in Hollywood, just off Young Circle, were forced out of their apartments on short notice to make way for a 25-story luxury high rise apartment-hotel complex.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Mattson. “Management was unprofessional and compassionless.”
Worse, he said, Hollywood did nothing to assist city residents displaced by a development that it is helping to fund.
“They treated people living there as though they were second class citizens. They want to build [Hollywood] up to look like South Beach,” Mattson said.
Another ex-tenant, Collette Curtis, 44, said that after she received her notice to vacate last September the complex’s manager was constantly “screaming and harassing” her to get her to move out. “It was terrible how we were treated,” she said.
Over the weekend, a decade after plans for a gleaming new tower were approved by City Hall, the 12-story Townhouse Apartments at 1776 Polk Street was demolished. Its end-of-the-line tale of gentrification is familiar: a rundown building in a rundown downtown area giving way to the promise of redevelopment.
Along with nearby properties, the 200-unit apartment building was designated as being located in a blighted area as defined under the state’s Community Redevelopment Act. Using that designation, the city can divert increased property taxes to developers to spur urban renewal.
But even as the dust settles, a legal tug-of-war continues as to whether the low and moderate-income tenants forced out of Townhouse Apartments are entitled to financial relocation assistance.
LEGAL AID LAWSUIT
Legal Aid Service of Broward County is pressing a class action lawsuit against both the city and the developer, Hollywood Circle LLC, claiming the ex-residents, including Mattson and Curtis, are owed that financial aid.
The defendants say they are not obligated to pay anything. They say residents were renting on a month-to-month basis – indicating that the building did not have a long life. City officials also contend that the fact that many tenants found new residences is proof that replacement rental units were available.
Legal Aid attorneys, however, contend that residents were forced out last December at the beginning of last year’s tourist season and had to pay higher rents or settle for less desirable housing. They also say residents are owed money under both state law governing the city’s use of community redevelopment funds for the project and applicable local law – a claim the city and the developer deny.
The next act in this drama will take place on Aug. 11 before Broward Circuit Judge John J. Murphy III who will hear from former residents, by affidavits or in person, about their plight. The judge will also consider Legal Aid’s request for an injunction to block construction of the hotel-apartment project until the issue of tenant relocation payments is resolved later.
Two former residents will not be testifying. They accepted cash payments of $15,000 and $4,000 from representatives for the owner of Townhouses Apartments to drop their legal action, according to court documents. Legal Aid attorney Sharon Bourassa believes two or three others may also have received financial payments.
After the two former residents accepted the payments, Legal Aid filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of the remainder of the tenants. It subsequently obtained a court order preventing representatives of the building owner from talking to their clients without Legal Aid attorneys being present.
THE NEED FOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE
Other former tenants, like Mattson and Curtis, say they had difficulties after moving without any financial assistance.
Mattson, a retiree receiving disability payments who lived at Townhouse Apartments for six years, had several hip operations before the tenants received notices to leave last fall. Because of his health, he had been trying to secure a lease on his $625-a-month apartment to make sure he had a place to be comfortable — but was turned down.
Wanting to get settled, Mattson moved in mid-November into a $595-a-month shared trailer off Sheridan Street, where he slept on a living room couch. In July, the widower moved in with his son and grandchildren in West Palm Beach.
Curtis, on the other hand, knew she could remain in her apartment until the end of the year despite the harassment because she’d paid the equivalent of three month’s rent – first, last and security – when she moved into Townhouse in November 2012.
“I told him [manager] to call my attorney,” she said. Still, she said, conditions went downhill. “The place was disgusting” especially at the end when maintenance stopped, including “spraying for bugs.”
Because she was studying to earn certification in technology studies, she didn’t have time to look for an apartment. With rents high in the area, Curtis said she moved to Williamsburg, Va., to stay with her mother.
In May, Curtis moved back to Florida. She’s now living in Sugarloaf Key, where she is working on and off in restaurants. She said she hopes to earn enough money to continue her studies.
Eanis Levinson, 68, a six-year resident, said she was also harassed by the building manager about when she planned to leave – to the point that she had to go to the emergency room “because of high stress.”
“I wish I was strong,” she said.
Levinson later found an efficiency apartment in a nearby house which she described as “a hellhole.”
She told her niece and her husband about her plight. The couple moved her to their city, Dothan, Alabama.
“I’m living in a two-bedroom apartment with central air,” Levinson said. “I have a beautiful apartment. No one is conning me. Thank God, in the end, it was fine.”
Looking back on her last days at Townhouse Apartments, Levinson said, “The residents were screwed. It’s all about money. We did nothing, but we were treated as peasants. The city did nothing.”