A few months back, Mayor Buddy Dyer promised to beef up enforcement of code enforcement fines. With the city struggling to stay in the black, the $33 million in fines the city has failed to collect over the last 14 years sure would come in handy right now. The reality is that collecting the money isn't that simple.
Each year, Orlando's Code Enforce-ment Bureau registers between 15,000 and 16,000 violations. In about 6,000 of the roughly 16,000 cases during the 2001-2002 fiscal year, code enforcement officers had junk cars towed and uncut lawns mowed, and then billed the owners for the expense. Those are known as "special-assessment fines."
In 606 other cases where the interior or exterior of a property wasn't up to snuff and owners rebuffed early opportunities to clean up, code enforcement officers hauled the property owners before the Code Enforcement Board. There, officers present evidence, property owners defend themselves and the board votes to assess fines. (Note to Libertarians: The it's-my-land-I'll-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want-with-it defense doesn't wash. Sorry.) If the problems aren't fixed, and the fines aren't paid, the board can vote to place a lien on the property.
After that the city can sometimes foreclose. Foreclosure is rare -- the city is currently trying to foreclose on about a dozen properties -- and usually reserved for the most egregious offenders. Even then, under Florida law, the city can't foreclose on properties with a homestead exemption. If they wanted to -- currently, they don't -- city officials could use the liens to take personal property, like Seminole County recently did with Alan Davis, Central Florida's most notorious code violator. (Davis is currently in jail awaiting sentencing for a felony littering conviction.)
Of the 606 cases that Code Enforce-ment prosecuted, 120 came into compliance but still faced fines with a penalty; 141 came into compliance before fines were assessed; 74 still had fines accruing at a cumulative rate of $9,160 per day. Overall, the city assessed $1.3 million in fines but collected only $271,581 of it. Another $71,250 was rescinded after property owners cleaned up and successfully begged the board to reduce or eliminate their penalties.
Why are the numbers so low? The city can't get blood from a turnip. In many cases, the fines far exceed the value of the property -- so even if the city foreclosed, it still could not recoup the fines. Plus, the city might have to invest thousands of dollars to make the property sellable. On the other hand, if there's no tangible threat, there's no way to force landowners to fix structural problems that can threaten occupants' safety, or to resolve visible blight that can bring down a neighborhood's property values.
"The liens are hopefully an inducement to clean up the property," says Mike Rhodes, Orlando's Code Enforcement Bureau Chief. "Hopefully the threat is enough."
Bob Spivey, Orange County's Manager for Code Enforcement, says the county almost never forecloses on indebted properties. "We're trying to get their attention," he says. "That money is not real money. We're in the compliance business."
Rhodes, with a boss who has recently pledged war on code violators, takes a stronger stance: "I don't negotiate with terrorists. I'm not going to give you a break, and I'm not going to talk to you about a break until (your property is) cleaned up."
Bravado aside, The City Beautiful is right now owed a helluva lot of money from folks who make it slightly less beautiful. What follows is a top-11 list (just because, that's why), in descending order, of those who owe Code Enforcement the most money as of Sept. 25. Each one owes more than $560,000 and combined they owe almost $9.3 million. Some are run-of-the-mill slumlords; others are property owners who are too poor to pay the piper, much less fix their houses' relatively minor problems, or who simply thought their code problems were behind them.
"Don't go by yourself," Rhodes warns me as I set off to investigate the properties in question. "Some of these people are crazy."
Until I called two weeks ago, David and Sonia Mitchell had no idea the city had more than $2.34 million in liens on their El Camino Apartments, a single-story grouping of small, beige apartments west of Jones High School that look somewhat akin to a dormitory. The chain-link fence on the property facing Orange Center Boulevard has one remaining strand of barbed wire above it; some of the units' windows are covered in bars and there's laundry drying on clotheslines. I see no obvious indications of code problems. The grass is neatly cut, the parking lot is evenly paved, and there's only a little trash strewn about.
The Mitchells say that, since buying the property in 1997 for $400,000, they have spent another $100,000 to get it into livable shape, and now all 30 units are occupied. "It was much dilapidated," David Mitchell says. "I have since rectified a lot of it." Some of the properties have new roofs, and Sonia Mitchell says the interior is "perfect."
In 1998, the Code Enforcement Board cited the Mitchells for: electrical-wiring problems, a faulty gas line, a structure compromised by a palm tree, an unsafe roof, cracked and broken windows and mirrors, a damaged fence, trash, no screens on windows (a ventilation problem when there's no central air conditioning), exterior walls with holes, failure to maintain a parking surface and handicapped spots, and more. All totaled, the Mitchells racked up 43 violations, each of which accumulated fines of $250 per day until they were fixed. In some cases, records show that the problems weren't remedied until December 2001, and over those three years, the fines mounted.
Rhodes says he doesn't know if, or when, the city will try to foreclose.
It was clear that this property was long vacant -- not just because of the two-story building's decrepit state, with doors bolted shut and windows smashed or boarded up, but because the Orlando Sentinel had mentioned it as an example of a bad apple in its June story on Dyer's quest to improve lien collection. Directly across the street from the Callahan Neighbor-hood Center in Parramore, the building belongs to Fort Lauderdale attorney Raleigh Rawls and his wife, Annie. It once housed a television-repair shop, apartments and a nonprofit organization, according to the Sentinel story.
The city has a lien on the Rawls' property for more than $1.13 million, fines the building has amassed since 2000 for having shattered windowpanes, no window screens or air conditioning, holes in the floor and for being a public nuisance. In 2001, Code Enforcement threatened to demolish the building if it wasn't fixed.
Though Code Enforcement sought the Rawls' compliance as far back as November 1999, records don't show any effort on the Rawls' part until Aug. 15, 2003, when they came into "actual compliance." Obviously, the problems aren't really fixed. Then again, it's no longer the Rawls' problem. A call to Raleigh Rawls' law office in Fort Lauderdale got the following response from a man who wouldn't give his name: "It belongs to the city of Orlando now. Ask them."
Indeed, on July 7 -- weeks after the Sentinel story appeared -- the city bought the property for $100 via a quitclaim deed. According to Orange County records, the property is worth $39,159. So the headache at 642 W. Washington St. now belongs to the mayor.
Rhodes says the city will likely demolish the property and try to have it redeveloped.
Joseph Wheeler isn't Code Enforce-ment's biggest fan. "I have a lot of rental properties," he says on the phone from his downtown home. He's dealt with Code Enforcement officers quite a bit. "Some of them are the nicest people. Other ones, they think they're God."
"We don't think much of him, either," Rhodes says.
Wheeler owes more than $1 million for two homes he rents, near the intersection of Shine Street and Colonial Drive. The fines date back to 1997, but Woodward insists he is being screwed by the incompetence of bureaucracy: "They haven't done their job fairly. I didn't know about `the liens` until a few months ago."
The home at 1407 Woodward St. is a yellow, two-story concrete-block construction in a middle-class neighborhood. The front windows are adorned with draperies bearing Asian lettering. The 1413 Woodward St. property is an unoccupied single-story vinyl-sided house. Wheeler also owns 1415 Woodward St., which has no liens; but a drive-by inspection did reveal a notice from Code Enforcement that Wheeler must trim back hedges near his front sidewalk by Oct. 24 or the city will do it for him and send him the $350 bill.
(An interesting note: The Orange County Property Appraiser lists Wheeler as owning 1413, 1415 and 1417 Woodward St. but has no listing for 1407. Rhodes explains that by saying his office places liens on the legal description of the property, not what's listed as the address, since property owners can mislabel addresses. In this case, Rhodes says, the legal description considers all the houses Wheeler owns on this street as one big property.)
Code Enforcement cited Wheeler in 1997 for what he calls minor violations -- a cracked tile on the front step, a front door that didn't completely close -- which he fixed up. The report lists a total of 29 violations, six of which are considered "major." But Code Enforcement also wanted him to get an engineer to certify that the house was structurally sound; he hired two, he says, each of whom told him that such an inspection was impossible to do without knocking all the walls down.
The Code Enforcement report lists as a violation that at 1413 Woodward St., the "rental structure `was` repaired without zoning approval and building permits." That is the only one of Wheeler's 29 violations not yet in compliance. Today, 1413 is unoccupied.
Wheeler says that the code enforcement officer who filed the report has since left the city's employ, and when she did, his case fell through the cracks. No one in the city agency bothered to close the file and, as a result, fines kept skyrocketing. Wheeler says that he's trying to work things out, and even paid $5,000 as a good-faith gesture in return for an expected hearing before the board to get his fine reduced. He says he hasn't heard back from them since.
Rhodes tells a different story: "He was doing work on rental property without permits and then without a licensed contractor." The $5,000 Wheeler paid was to get a release to sell or refinance another property he owns, Rhodes says. Under state law, if the city has a lien on one of your properties, it can apply the lien to any of the other properties you own within city limits. Rhodes says he can't recall whether Code Enforcement agreed to the release.
Either way, Wheeler will come before the board in December to answer complaints that the stairs at 1415 Woodward St. aren't up to snuff.
Jean Perrin, a dark-haired man of medium build, answers his door in jeans and a half-open shirt, seemingly unaware and largely unconcerned about the fact that Code Enforcement says he owes the city more than $780,000. The fines stem from a 1995 citation he received for unpermitted efficiency apartments in his backyard. Perrin says the structures were there when he bought the house more than 20 years ago, and he merely remodeled them. Code officers only took notice, he says, a decade ago, after city planners began studying his south Orlando neighborhood as a light-rail corridor and considered buying up all the properties.
Back then, Perrin went to the board, explained his side of the story and considered it done. He hasn't heard from Code Enforcement since.
According to records, the fines against Perrin are still mounting, as he never came into compliance. The city's hands are tied, however, as Perrin has a homestead exemption.
"I told them what I had to say in 1995 and that was it," he says. Perhaps it was.
"It doesn't look like there's much to talk about," Rhodes admits, looking at the case file. Still, Perrin's property is scheduled to be reinspected Dec. 17, and officers have inspected Perrin's property every year since the case started.
Perrin's homestead exemption may keep the city's foreclosure attorneys at bay, but if ever the property is sold or even bequeathed in probate, the city will be there to collect.
The lien on this property -- a middle-class home in Azalea Park on the city's eastern edge -- originally targeted Chemical Residential Mortgage Corp., which apparently owned the property when it was cited in 1996 for eight interior housing violations, including a faulty smoke detector, and plumbing and cleanliness deficiencies, as well as six exterior violations; the roof and windows needed repairs and the building was deemed to be a public nuisance. The exterior violations were cleared up in July 2003. The interior ones are still listed as not being in compliance.
But Chemical Residential, a company apparently based in Ohio but with an "in care of" address on Madison Avenue in New York City, doesn't own the property anymore. Orange County property records indicate that Mark and Karen Cable of Gotha bought it in June 2003.
Last year, the house was foreclosed on because of tax issues and then resold. In the process, the lien most likely got wiped out (assuming the title company properly processed its documents), and Orlando got stiffed on the $734,700. "Now we have to start the process over again," Rhodes says. In other words, inspectors will go out and see if things have been fixed up.
That looks to be the case. The woman who answered the door on my visit had no idea about Chemical Residential and said her cousin rented the house but wasn't home.
In 1995, Code Enforcement cited Freddia Lee Smith for "operating an illegal group housing facility" at property she owns on West Jackson Street. Group housing facilities have to be licensed, Rhodes says, and Smith's wasn't.
As with Wheeler's property, the address in question doesn't jibe with the Orange County Property Appraiser. The appraisers' records say Smith owns 607 W. Jackson St., which sits next to 603 W. Jackson St. and is zoned as a "rooming house." According to Code Enforcement records, the zoning problem has never been fixed, so Smith owes more than $721,000 on a property valued at just under $22,000. (After a homestead exemption is factored in, Smith pays just $41.71 in taxes every year.)
Smith's house is two stories, covered in red wood panels. The window frames are peeling. From West Jackson Street, the house is deeper than it is wide and sits next to a square, brick, dormitory-type building addressed as 601 and 603 W. Jackson St.
Smith, as a phone call to the house's listed number revealed, is now deceased. "It's her daughter's and her daughter's out of town," says the unnamed man whom answers. "I don't know when they'll be back." The man goes on to say that, despite the fact that Code Enforcement still lists the property as not-in-compliance, the house is no longer a "rooming house." Instead, it's now shelter for older family friends, he says, but nothing else.
Jose De Leon and Margarita Gonzalez
622 W. Miller St.
The $719,450 in fines may be directed at Jose De Leon and Margarita Gonzalez, owners of the small, white-with-blue-trim house near I-4 and Kaley Street, but the city apparently lost its chance to pounce on the lien. Signs on the door and front window indicate the house has been repossessed. (The signs don't say by whom.) Should the city wish to collect on its debts, it will have to ask the mortgage company. As with the Andora Street property, as long as the mortgage company doesn't mess up its paperwork, the city can kiss that money goodbye.
The fines date back to 1997, when the property was cited for having no hot water, deteriorating bathrooms, a non-draining shower, nails sticking out of floors and doors that didn't fit, as well as a satellite dish in the backyard and an enclosed carport that were erected sans permit. Code Enforcement records indicate the latter two items weren't remedied; the rest were fixed as of last year.
There is nothing at 1003 W. Jackson St.; a chain-link fence separates the empty lot in Parramore from an adjacent repair shop that looks like a small airplane hangar filled with cars and boats. At first, I thought the hangar belonged to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando; turns out, according to the man inside, it's the dirt lot that belongs to the nonprofit. He tells me that Habitat for Humanity recently sold the property to a construction company. If that is true, there's no record of it in the property appraiser's database. Zoned as "charitable" and valued at about $24,000, the piece of land was bought for $100 in 1994 by Habitat for Humanity via a quitclaim deed -- a year after the government took it over due to a delinquent tax bill.
The code problems predate Habitat's ownership and go back as far as 1989, according to Code Enforcement records. The file for the 1989 case only hints at dead tree limbs on the property and reads, "an old case heard prior to implementation of computerized system," meaning you can't get at the records without digging through a storage bin somewhere. Another file for the same property, dated 1997, lists it as coming into compliance.
Phone calls to Habitat's office went unreturned, but apparently my message got them concerned enough to call Rhodes. For some time, Habitat has been seeking to sell the property to a developer. In fact, earlier in Dyer's administration, Rhodes was contacted by Habitat to see about forgiving the liens. Rhodes told them that the new mayor wasn't going to forgive liens, even to nonprofits, as easily as his predecessors did. The issue went away, at least until I called.
Nonprofit or not, Rhodes says the board won't be so ready to forgive and forget. "I'm all for Habitat doing good work," he says, "but the city is out money there."
Sherlyn Storr's property at 712 W. Jefferson St. has some signs of life -- a tray of cat food on the front porch; trash cans out front; what looks to be a covered-up boat in the rear driveway -- but no one answers my knock. Neighbors say, "I just see them go in every once in a while and come out."
This property had 15 violations, eight of which Code Enforcement classified as "major." These included shattered windows, a broken smoke detector, alterations to the house without permits, a damaged front door, damaged gutters and a bathroom floor that yields to pressure. Most of the problems were fixed soon after Code Enforcement identified them in late 1999, but a few remain to this day, namely delinquent roof repairs and termite-ridden door frames.
The property immediately next door, technically on McQuigg, has seen similar problems -- property altered without permits, a violation that is still accumulating a daily $250 fine.
"I've been in some of these buildings that she owns," Rhodes says. "One of them ought to be demolished." In this neighborhood, he tells me, there are several vacant lots. Most were homes the city took over and demolished. Storr's problem, Rhodes says, is problem tenants, and more importantly, her inability to control what they do to her properties.
"We hold the property owner responsible," he says. "You `the owner` need to take legal action against your tenant."
Compared to some on this list, Cary D'Ortona's code violations seem petty -- specifically, a 1997 citation for a stagnant pool and a wood fence in need of repair. But, according to the records, D'Ortona simply never complied with Code Enforcement's demands, and as a result, the city has a lien on his $231,131-appraised home for fines totaling just under $600,000.
D'Ortona's middle-class house, in the middle-class College Park neighborhood on Orlando's southwest side, doesn't look out of the ordinary. Of course, the six-year-old code problems are in the backyard, mostly out of view.
"I'd rather not go into it," D'Ortona says when asked about the violations. "I didn't realize there's a lien. I'll have to check into that."
"If I could foreclose on `George` Sawaf, I would," Rhodes says, reflecting on the nuisance of Catherine Street. "He's not done anything right in a long, long time. Regrettably, it's a homestead."
Sawaf's history with Code Enforce-ment is storied. Rhodes tells of him meeting officers clad only in underwear. Once, after Code Enforcement cleaned up his junk-ridden lot, Sawaf accused the officers of stealing his lawn mower. The irony, Rhodes points out, is that Sawaf didn't use the lawn mower anyway. Hence, code enforcers have made repeated trips to clean Sawaf's property for him, for which Sawaf never pays the special assessment fines, Rhodes says. If Code Enforcement wanted to take his lawn mower, it would likely go to a judge and get it. Sawaf certainly owes the city enough money.
Code Enforcement records show five active liens against Sawaf's property, which is valued at $136,949 by the property appraiser.
When I visit the green brick house, there are three cars parked around the house. The grass is overgrown, and the driveway and porch are cluttered with wood boards. Despite the three cars in the driveway, no one answers the door. Other phone calls to Sawaf's house went unanswered and messages unreturned.
Sawaf, according to records, tried to pour three driveways and had a prohibited commercial vehicle on his property, as well as a nonfunctioning sink and lavatory, bad wiring, building materials strewn across the lawn, and exterior walls full of holes and in need of paint. His ongoing battles with code enforcers date back to 1996, and Sawaf now owes more than $560,000.
"One day he's going to have to come to terms with this stuff," Rhodes says.
On the beat
People welcome trash collection. Cops and firefighters get pinup calendars in their honor. But nobody lauds the code enforcement officer. "You usually don't call us," says Orlando's Code Enforcement Bureau Chief Mike Rhodes. "We come to you. We cost people time, money and resources most of them don't have."
So they are chased off properties, ranted at by property-rights activists and generally despised by the repeat offenders they visit most.
What a job.
On a recent Friday morning, I hop in a late-model Ford F-150 with Code Enforcement Officer Julie Fillingim, who patrols a large chunk of east Orlando, from Orange Avenue to Conway Road, north of the East-West Expressway and south of Colonial Drive. Today, she tells me, we'll be exploring Delaney Park. Fillingim has four assignments -- properties that have either been the subject of complaints or past delinquents due a checkup -- after which she'll spend the afternoon cruising the neighborhood looking for violations.
First up, a home in dire need of lawn care. The owner, Fillingim says, isn't entirely friendly, but he's not home either. So she calmly takes a stake out of the truck's bed, hammers it into the ground and staples a placard to it informing the owner he has 15 days to mow and edge his lawn or the city will do it and send him a bill.
Though it's not on her list, Fillingim notices the house next door has a rain gutter hanging down and paint peeling off the walls and garage door. She walks around the house, snapping digital pictures for later use as evidence.
She wonders aloud if the house is a rental -- there's an old Volkswagen Beetle in the driveway with Valencia Community College stickers on it -- but a quick check through the city's database reveals it's owner-occupied. A knock on the door gets no response, so the citation will go in the mail.
Next up is a house for sale and under renovation, also in need of yard work. "You see any trash back there?" Fillingim asks me, checking off the boxes on her notice placard. I don't. "I'll mark it anyway, just to make sure."
One problem: The address on the door doesn't square with the address in the city's database. She will have to come back later, once the glitch is straightened out.
As Fillingim fills out her paperwork, an elderly woman pulls up beside her in an old, rusting blue sedan. The woman, Fillingim says with the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll, owns several properties on an adjoining street and parks a fleet of classic cars in her backyard, but doesn't bother to place current tags on them, keep the tires inflated or show evidence that they move from time to time, all requisites for storing old cars.
The woman, who has a young boy in the front seat with her, rolls down her window and begins spieling about how she's going to get the proper tags for her cars this afternoon and how she really does have license plates but they're inside because she's afraid that neighborhood hooligans will steal them but there's a man across the street from her that has a pontoon boat in his driveway that hasn't moved in a year and she should really check on that and he also has a truck in his backyard that needs to be moved ... etc.
Fillingim is polite and nods courteously. "And next time," the woman concludes, "knock on my door. I was home." (A while back, Fillingim had walked into her backyard and stuck bright-orange warning notices on the woman's cars.) With that, she drives off.
"She was mild today," Fillingim says, smiling. "The reason I didn't knock on her door is, every time I do, she chases me off her property."
Code enforcement officers, unlike cops, defer to property owners. They can't enter a house without permission, and if someone bitches at them to leave, they will, though they'll also come back.
Onward we march, freely walking into backyards to place no-tag notices on cars and telling renters their landlords would be held responsible if they don't move the boat, remove the decrepit shed or cut the overgrown weeds.
Next we go to a psychiatric clinic across from Orlando Regional Medical Center; a neighbor has complained that the clinic didn't take its trash cans in from the curb quickly enough, which isn't a violation. While she was there, Fillingim informed the clinic it needed to redo its parking lot.
All in a day's work.
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