Compared to some of her neighbors, Leandra Simmons was lucky.
Her two-bedroom apartment in the Sanford projects had no roaches, leaky roofs or broken doorknobs. "I had it straight," says the 32-year-old nurse. "When I moved in, I had no holes and no problems. We had two snakes that came into our apartment, but that was it. I couldn't tell you what color they were. But they were long-sized snakes."
Still, Simmons liked the place and was glad to call it home -- until this past August, when the Sanford Housing Authority abruptly forced her to pack up her five children and all of their belongings and move out. Her relocation was not the result of her running afoul of the system; in fact, while she no longer lives in one of the agency's apartments, her rent for a two-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood on Sanford's west side is still subsidized by public money.
But that subsidy will run out in two years. When it does, Simmons fears, she and her family will have no place to go.
In that case, there'll be no one to blame but Timothy Hudson.
A 39-year-old Sanford pastor, Hudson took over the troubled housing authority five years ago. Tall and imposing, he was supposed to be the no-nonsense chief who restored order to an agency whose complexes were overrun by drug sales, prostitution and car thefts, and whose previous executive director quit amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement.
Yet Hudson has proven to be a sloppy and unresponsive manager, an inadequate bookkeeper and a tyrannical landlord whose policies have been rebuked by the courts. His financial irresponsibility includes a $30,000 housing authority check bounced for insufficient funds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development currently wants to know where he spent nearly $844,000 meant to renovate apartments, including Simmons', that Hudson continues to clear out and board up.
The widow of one former authority worker blames Hudson's office for mishandling insurance paperwork that she believes might have saved her husband's life. And relatives of a former tenant say her death following a fall in her bathtub was hastened by the agency's failure to fix a broken emergency call box.
Hudson's actions are overseen by a five-member board of directors appointed by the Sanford City Council. But a federal magistrate last month accused the board of "egregious" ignorance, raising questions about how much Hudson tells the board and, even more troubling, about the board's level of interest in monitoring the agency and its apparently unchecked director.
The relocation program that sent Leandra Simmons packing is just the most recent illustration of Hudson as a rogue administrator. Told by HUD in late August to stop moving out his tenants, Hudson kept at it. His motivation appears to be vacating apartments that he wants to tear down and rebuild. HUD said the demolition is unwarranted, but Hudson continues in his mission to push 90 families out of his way.
Indeed, despite rating Hudson's agency as a "high-performer" early on, HUD is now focusing a more critical eye.
Given that Hudson is also a private developer -- and the fact that he found an apartment for a woman whose house he personally bought and replaced, speeding her application past others on the long waiting list -- that criticism joins a chorus of existing outrage.
One of the first observations to be made about Tim Hudson is that, with an annual salary of $81,800, he appears to be grossly overpaid. The executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, John Cherry, for example, earns $61,333. And Cherry manages 300 more units than Hudson's total of 480 -- apartments that, judging from outward appearances, are also better maintained.
The most damning indictment of Hudson's stewardship is the condition of the Sanford authority's six complexes. Yards are littered with paper, beer bottles and tree limbs. Wheelchair ramps have grown over with weeds. Parking lots look like they've been hit with artillery shells. The remains of a burnt building lay scattered from a fire months ago. Concrete blocks have been yanked from walls. Glass is scattered across a basketball court. At night, sections are pitch black because street lights have been tampered with, and the bulbs haven't been replaced.
Besides rats and snakes, residents complain of leaky roofs, exposed sewer lines and rotted drywall and cabinets. "These people," says Sharon Stallworth, a former housing authority employee, "live like animals."
Residents have called for Hudson's resignation, filed complaints with HUD and picketed Sanford City Hall and Mayor Larry Dale's house. The response hasn't been good. Hudson silences residents at board meetings by saying it isn't their turn to talk. City Council members cut them off, telling residents to place their concerns on the meeting agenda before commissioners will hear them.
Tenants have a legitimate reason to worry that their homes are being taken from them. Sanford, the seat of Seminole County, is starting to embrace the development craze that has swelled the size of most other metro Orlando cities. Because Hudson owns his own property-management company, many residents see him as being at the service of city officials. They fear that the move-out program, which was begun without much notice or permission from HUD, is an attempt by Hudson and the city to uproot poor black people, many of whom worked the fields of "Celery City" when it was surrounded by farmland.
Hudson, a 1988 graduate of Rollins College who is also a member of Sanford's planning and zoning board, enjoys a certain amount of clout in his hometown. He preaches at a small church called Shower Down the Blessings and is good friends with Velma Williams, a city commissioner who is only the second African American to hold elected office in Sanford's 123-year history. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, the Sanford City Council and the Seminole County Commission all have endorsed Hudson's proposals over the years.
Hudson has been praised for cracking down on crime and "lazy" housing authority tenants. Among his crack-the-whip policies, he has required tenants to sign leases that let him enter their apartments without a search warrant; prohibited tenants from gathering in their yards, and denied residents who were facing eviction proceedings access to a jury trial. ("Hallelujah," chimed an Orlando Sentinel editorialist, praising Hudson's actions.)
Yet Hudson has lost ground lately -- especially in courtrooms, and certainly to HUD. Up until now, the federal agency has been rather lenient, presumably because the Sanford housing authority, like all of the nation's 3,161 public-housing agencies, is supposed to operate in relative autonomy. Other than a few tersely written letters, John Niesz, the director of public housing in HUD's regional office in Jacksonville, has taken no steps to reel in the Sanford authority. But there are signs that HUD could soon clamp down.
According to HUD documents, the authority misspent nearly $844,000 designated to renovate the 100 apartments of Lake Monroe Terrace -- the same complex from which Leandra Simmons was moved. Built in 1972, Lake Monroe Terrace is the newest of the authority's six apartment complexes, yet its brick buildings are clearly in the worst condition. Most Lake Monroe apartments are boarded up; all are in varying degrees of decay. "Since the Housing Authority has not provided our office clear documentation on what the funds were actually expended [on], we can only comment that they were not expended in accordance with what was approved in the original annual statements," a HUD report, issued in August, said.
HUD now wants to know where that money went, said a spokesman for the department. If federal officials conclude the funds were misspent, they can pursue several options, including asking the authority's board to resign or place the agency in receivership, in which case a HUD representative takes charge until the authority can be turned over to a competent board and director. Housing authorities in New Orleans, Kansas City and Washington, D.C., are in varying stages of receivership for problems similar to Sanford's, such as a high number of vacancies. "Our options are fairly broad, but [Jacksonville officials] have indicated nothing specific at this time," says HUD spokesman Michael Daly.
Typically, the authority's board would oversee Hudson, regulating his actions and setting policy. But the board has not been much of a watchdog. In December a federal magistrate rebuked the five directors for failing to abide by a court order that stopped the authority from banning tenant gatherings; one of the two board members who testified in a contempt-of-court hearing said he didn't even know the authority had lost the case, and he expressed with "great confidence" that Hudson could handle the matter. "While the court finds that the board has not maliciously flouted the orders of this court, the court finds that the level of ignorance of these proceedings and the appalling lack of concern reflected by such ignorance is so egregious as to constitute a deliberate indifference to these proceedings, and the orders of this court," Magistrate David Baker wrote in a report. He recommended to a federal judge that the authority be cited with contempt.
Most of the directors have been on the board more than seven years. Whenever a director's term expires, Hudson writes a letter to the Sanford city manager asking that the member be reappointed. Moreover, Hudson and Ed Blacksheare, the board's president, are open to conflict-of-interest charges because they are in business together; the two are listed as officers on a for-profit company called Savvy Ventures.
Thus far, the authority's board, whose members include Emory Blake, father of pro-football quarterback Jeff Blake, has shrugged at suggestions of impropriety on either their own or Hudson's part, preferring a circle-the-wagons approach. Board member Shirley Allen declined to talk to Orlando Weekly, saying that reporters "only accentuate the negative and never care about the positive."
Hudson and Blacksheare were equally reluctant to be interviewed or to provide audits and other documents for inspection.
Blacksheare, a former Seminole County school official, simply didn't return several messages left for him. Hudson allowed a brief interview but said he was too busy to talk at length and is suspicious of reporters because they tend to have their story written before reporting it.
In a short telephone conversation, he stressed his belief that tenants living in the authority's complexes should be self-sufficient, self-reliant and remove themselves from government subsidies as quickly as possible. "We're the greatest capitalist society in the world," he said. "We have all the available resources in the world. ... You have to have people who are willing to submit themselves to training and are not going to be lazy. If they do, anything can be obtained. With the right attitude, you can reach high altitudes."
Hudson's up-by-the-bootstraps mentality, which plays well to Sanford's conservative political establishment, seems like a cruel joke to many of those who live in his apartments. Most of the tenants living in the authority's pink and beige duplexes and fourplexes, located west of U.S. 17-92 (known in Sanford as French Avenue, which acts as Sanford's racial dividing line), are elderly, disabled or single mothers struggling to pay bills on fast-food salaries. Some tenants can't read or write; they sign their name the old-fashioned way, by having someone witness them scribbling an "X" on a line.
They feel lucky just to have reached the projects.
"You have 12 children living in one house," says Mary Noble, who has lived off and on in the Sanford projects for 40 years. "Where are you going to put that mother and 12 children? They can't afford a $500-a-month apartment."
What's more, why should residents be so eager to get off government subsidies when Hudson himself pursues them? His company, TDH Associates, accepted $341,000 from Seminole County to build two small, low-income apartment complexes, located in the same blighted neighborhood as the housing projects, and eight homes in Midway, an unincorporated community southeast of Sanford.
And it hasn't gone unnoticed that Hudson's apartments, which are impeccably maintained, are painted the same color as some of the housing authority's buildings and appear to share many of the same building materials.
"I think it's suspicious that his replacement windows and landscaping were all done about the same time that sod and windows were put in at the housing authority," says Leonard Cabral, a part-time attorney with Central Florida Legal Services, an agency that works with low-income households.
There's nothing illegal about Hudson's owning his apartments, though a state law does prohibit housing-authority employees from owning low-income housing if they fail to report the dwellings to their authority's board of directors.
Yet other housing directors, like Vivian Bryant of the Orlando Housing Authority, typically avoid owning low-income housing because they want to avoid conflict-of-interest charges and the perception that they're competing with their own housing projects for tenants. "I try to make sure it doesn't even look like it's inappropriate," says Bryant.
There's no evidence that Hudson has moved authority tenants into his apartments. But there is proof that he moved a woman out of a house and into the housing authority so that he might begin building one of his apartment complexes on the land where she formerly lived. Documents show that it took the housing authority a single day to approve Tilda Peterson's application; it so happens she lived in a house at 1003 Olive Ave. that Hudson bought and demolished in 1996. Peterson, who is deceased, moved into a William Clark Court apartment shortly after Hudson approved her as a tenant in May 1996.
Meanwhile, Easter McFadden, a 45-year-old mother of five, says she has been on the authority's waiting list for an apartment since 1975. On the occasion of one appointment with the authority, in 1998, Hudson kept her waiting in the lobby from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., she says. For six hours she kept busy by reading the authority's bulletin board, going outside only to "get a little puff off a cigarette."
Then when Hudson finally allowed her to see him, she says he made her cry by saying she looked like a dope addict, was a bad influence on her son and that she'd have to remain on the waiting list. The reason? She didn't make enough money. McFadden, who had a stroke in April, was too poor to live in public housing.
"He said the housing authority is not like it used to be," McFadden remembers. "He said I was going to have to bring money in. They're not going to take care of us. The apartments are going to be for people who work." She now lives in south Sanford with her adult son and sister-in-law. "My children don't mind," she says, "but I know it's hard for them."
At a recent tenants' meeting, a woman complaining of a leaking closet asked who she could turn to for help. A member of the tenant board pointed to a man in the audience, Bruce Scott, a paralegal for Central Florida Legal Services, and replied, "Take your complaint to Mr. Hudson. And if he doesn't do anything, then there's your man, right there on the end, Mr. Scott."
Indeed, Hudson has fostered such acrimony that residents assume they'll need an attorney just to secure minor repairs. And from an office located among the Victorian homes near Sanford's quiet, reserved downtown, Central Florida Legal Services has battled Hudson over a wide range of issues, from Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure violations to the installation of a screen door.
Treena Kaye is managing attorney of the legal services office. A small woman who drives a big Ford pickup, Kaye has been with the agency since 1977 and knows by heart the names and histories of many of the authority's tenants. She is reluctant to talk about Hudson on the record, though her position is well known around Sanford.
"Tim's had a hard row to hoe with Treena trumping up charges on him," says Larry Dale, Sanford's mayor. "I don't know about her. But I haven't lost confidence in Tim Hudson."
Hudson has worked hard to send the message that Kaye's agency is persecuting him. When Cabral and Scott attempted to enter a meeting called in June 1999 to discuss the $6,000 that Hudson took from a tenant organization, Hudson tried to have a restraining order placed on them. A judge refused. (Hudson later returned the money.)
Still, if not for legal services' attorneys, many who reside in the Sanford projects say they would be persecuted by Hudson.
Riley Amie is a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran and former migrant worker who got in a fight out of state and fell down a flight of stairs. Now a paraplegic, Amie turned to Kaye's office after Hudson kept him on the apartment waiting list for several years. "Everybody else was getting in," says Amie, who lives on a monthly $514 Social Security check. "I go there and I can't get in. Why?"
Amie says he approached Hudson about an apartment in 1998 but was turned away because Hudson smelled beer on his breath. "Beer," Amie says, "has nothing to do with my business, because I know how to handle my business."
Cabral got involved, and Amie was provided an apartment within months. But his William Clark Court unit isn't the kind of place you put a wheelchair-bound person in. His freezer, windows, light switches, kitchen cabinets and closet shelves are too high for him to reach. His bathtub has extra bars for Amie to lift himself in and out of, but no sandpaper-like material on the bottom to prevent Amie from slipping. Worst of all, if something happens to him, Amie has no way to warn the outside world: The emergency alarm boxes installed in his apartment don't work.
Cabral has filed an administrative appeal to have Amie's apartment made handicap-accessible -- an important filing considering what happened last year to Amie's next-door neighbor.
Laura Butler was taking a bath in her home when she slipped and fell in the tub. She tried to escape by pulling herself up, but the bottom of the tub was too slick. When she yanked on an emergency call box, the string snapped, preventing the alarm from sounding.
Finally, Butler, who was 58 and had major kidney and heart problems, began banging on the wall.
"I thought it was kids playing in the Dumpster," says Amie, who rescued Butler by calling an ambulance.
Butler died the next day. Doctors listed a blood clot caused by her fall as a contributing factor in her death, officially caused by kidney failure. That leads Butler's family to conclude the housing authority hastened her death.
"My mom wouldn't have died if that tub was fixed right," says David McCloud, Butler's son. "She'd be here today."
Yet McCloud points out that even if the call-box string hadn't snapped, the alarm wouldn't have sounded. It has been broken ever since his family moved in five years ago.
To fight tenants in court, Hudson retains the Orlando law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. (Congressman-elect Ric Keller is an attorney with the firm; Thom Rumberger, legal counsel for the state Republican party, recently was named to Jeb Bush's election task force.) Among its clients are a number of insurance companies, General Electric, General Motors and Lloyd's of London. This class of counsel doesn't come cheap: The authority paid Rum-berger, Kirk more than $92,000 for a single case between 1997 and 1999 -- a case they eventually lost.
The absurdity of spending thousands of public dollars to fight tenants hasn't been lost on judges who hear housing authority cases. They have pointed out, as Orlando federal court Judge Gregory A. Presnell did at a mid-November hearing, that it might be smarter for the authority to settle disputes in-house than to take each of them to court.
Presnell made his observation during a hearing involving Roshell Smith, a 55-year-old William Clark Court resident who can barely walk from the bathroom to the couch without gasping for air. Several years ago the authority installed a wrought-iron fence around Smith's entire complex, cutting off access from her entrance walkway to the street. Since Smith's respiratory problems make it difficult for her to walk to an opening 70 yards from her front door, she asked the authority to install a $500 gate in front of her house.
For many residents, the fence -- and another one like it at Lake Monroe Terrace -- symbolizes the authority's tenant-relation problems. Residents hate it because it hinders access to the street and prevents emergency vehicles from more easily reaching them. More important, it's tangible evidence of the callousness with which the authority treats them. "It's like we're in a prison or something," says McCloud.
Yet Hudson has defended the fence as if he were a prison warden. His attorneys say that residents asked for it in the first place, which most residents deny. Sanford police side with Hudson, saying the spiked-iron barrier deters drug sales and prostitution -- though residents dispute this, too. "It don't keep nobody out," Amie observes, "and it don't keep nobody in."
With the aid of Central Florida Legal Services, Smith sued the authority. Her case won't come up for trial until next summer; meantime, legal services asked Judge Presnell for an injunction to have the gate installed. He denied the request but criticized the authority for "spending $5,000 defending a $500 request."
"Ya'll can't seem to agree on anything," he continued. "I'm not just talking about this case. ... If you can't begin agreeing on some things, I can find a federal magistrate to hold court every day out there."
Judges also have frowned on certain oppressive policies Hudson has put in place. Among those later struck down in court: a one-strike-and-you're-out provision in lease agreements that far exceeded HUD's accepted policy for evicting tenants charged with criminal acts. Hudson had evicted tenants for such infractions as parking on the grass, drinking beer, excessive trash on porches and unauthorized gatherings. His lease even prohibited trespassing, though it isn't clear how a tenant can trespass on property he or she rents.
In May 1997, two tenants filed suit against Hudson and the housing authority for adding a clause in leases that read, in part, that a tenant "waives any right to a jury trial in any court action for the enforcement or termination of this rental agreement." Hudson's provision was again at odds with HUD's own regulations. It took a letter from Deborah Vincent, HUD's assistant secretary for public housing -- just a notch removed from HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo -- to convince an Orlando federal judge to strike down the authority's no-jury provision.
But the matter should never have run up court costs in the first place. In a November 1997 letter from Michael W. Mitchell, the regional acting director of public housing, HUD told Hudson to delete the jury-trial waiver in his lease.
Hudson not only ignored the order and took the issue to court but also asked HUD for the $103,619 he spent to fight the suit. HUD's Niesz denied the request, writing, "But for the housing authority's insistence on asserting its right to retain this lease provision in the face of repeated HUD objections, there would be no lengthy litigation."
As part of a settlement agreement with the Southern Legal Counsel, a for-profit advocacy law firm based in Gainesville, the authority later was required to pay $30,000 for the tenants' legal fees. But Hudson and Blacksheare's check to Southern Legal was returned for insufficient funds. The authority has yet to pay the debt, leaving the settlement in limbo and residents confused about accountability and hypocrisy.
"How come a place like this has a $30,000 check that bounced?" Amie says. "Why does Hudson still have his job? They have fired so many people. Why is he still there?"
Legal Services' win over Hudson preceded another victory for the next tenant who took Hudson to court.
Tanisa Comer, a Lake Monroe Terrace tenant, alleged that Hudson had entered her apartment illegally, claiming his lease gave him access to Comer's home whenever he considered there to be an emergency. The "emergency" he wanted to investigate in May 1998 was a group of male friends who were gathered in Comer's residence while she was working. Hudson called Sanford police and entered the apartment without bothering to obtain a search warrant. He uncovered a sofa cushion and confiscated a box allegedly containing marijuana and cocaine.
A Seminole County jury ruled Hudson violated Comer's Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches, and awarded her $77,000. The authority has appealed.
In September 1995, Hudson took over an agency that was clearly in trouble.
Phyllis Richardson, the Sanford Housing Authority's previous executive director, had resigned amid allegations that she sold her son a new Ford Explorer belonging to the authority for $4,500 less than its value. Then she provided bogus invoices to an auditor and representative of the Inspector General's office. An audit also uncovered a number of financial improprieties.
The U.S. Attorney's Office indicted Richardson in August on four counts of making false statements and providing phony documents to government officials. In October, Richardson pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements. She faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. She'll be sentenced Jan. 17.
Hudson was Richardson's financial director. Yet under his leadership, the agency hasn't fared much better.
He's made some effort to make the place appear to be bustling with efficiency, requiring that employees address each other by "Mr." and "Mrs." But appearances go only so far. Former employees allege a number of bad management practices: No employee orientation, handbook or training. No posting of some authority job openings. Micro-managing to the point where Hudson holds six or more meetings with some employees each day.
Hudson even convened a staff meeting to deny rumors he was having affairs with two authority employees.
His sloppy administration was detailed in a January 1999 letter from HUD that pointed to a number of "serious violations" involving the waiting lists for public housing and the Section 8 program for subsidized rents. The authority wasn't checking applications to make sure people were qualified for housing and, worse, had no apparent policy for selecting applicants. Hudson was picking whomever he wanted to place in his apartments. "We believe [the housing authority] has improperly housed some applicant families ahead of other eligible families on the waiting list," the report concluded.
Even former employees who say they like Hudson concede the authority would be better off without him.
"He could have been a good manager," says Sheryl Moore, who was fired by Hudson in October -- because, she says, she wouldn't attend a training session in Gainesville. "He's high-spirited, talented and intelligent. But people like him kind of blow up within themselves. They feel all power in their hands and think that they are untouchable."
If Hudson's management style were the only issue, problems at his agency could be chalked up to personality clashes and left at that. But the mismanagement has had real-world consequences; some allege fraud, as well as mishandled insurance paperwork that may have contributed to the death of an authority employee.
Sharon Stallworth is a former employee who worked as a project director with at-risk teenagers. She alleges that Hudson committed fraud with funds from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. A $29,150 grant, which funded esteem-building programs for youth, allowed $10,000 in discretionary spending, Stallworth says.
But "I don't know what he spent it on," she says. She alleges that Hudson asked her to write down serial numbers from three computers in stock to cover for his expenditures. When Stallworth refused, she says, Hudson ordered her to write down bogus reasons for spending the money.
Officials at the Department of Juvenile Justice were aware, to a degree, that the authority hadn't submitted invoices and spent money for things that had nothing to do with the program, such as a Christmas workshop. The department documented a number of spending improprieties last February.
"There is no budget line item for an 'other' category, nor is there one for office supplies or groceries," wrote Arthur Mainwood, of the juvenile justice agency.
The employee death occurred in August 1999 after Anthony Taylor, a maintenance manager, struggled to get medical care when it appeared his health insurance wasn't in order.
Taylor, a Michigan native who moved to Central Florida six years ago, was hired in April 1999 to handle the maintenance department and oversee the authority's inventory. That summer, he began having chest pains and was taken to Florida Hospital in Altamonte Springs. After several days, however, Taylor was sent home. "The doctors said, 'We're not going to run any more tests,'" says Vanessa Taylor, Anthony's widow. "'We're going to release you.' [Anthony] was saying there was insurance, and they were saying, 'We can't find it.'"
A month went by; another appointment was made, then canceled by the doctor who "said he didn't know if he was going to get paid," says Vanessa Taylor. Then, on Aug. 19, Taylor went to a pulmonary specialist, who prescribed what Vanessa Taylor says was asthma medication. That night, her husband went into convulsions and was rushed to the emergency room, where he died.
The official cause of death: complications from "hypertensive cardiovascular disease," or high blood pressure -- a condition Vanessa Taylor, whose hands still shake when she talks about her husband, says could have been treated. "They could have operated and fixed his heart, and I think that they did not because they didn't know if they were going to get paid," she says.
Taylor did have insurance, though. Housing Authority employees receive a full package of benefits after a 90-day probationary period, benefits that include health insurance with Miami-based AmVed Health Plan and life insurance with Principal Life. Those benefits should have begun July 1, 1999.
In November 1999, well after Taylor died, AmVed sent Vanessa Taylor a letter saying that her husband had indeed been insured beginning July 1, a month and a half before he died. Why that information never reached doctors remains unclear.
After Taylor died, his family didn't have enough money to bury him. They inquired about life insurance money, but Hudson told them Taylor didn't qualify for it, recalls Vanessa Taylor. That wasn't true. Though the paperwork hadn't been filed, the authority had been paying Taylor's premiums. He was entitled to one-and-a-half times his $30,000 salary, which Principal Life eventually paid the Taylor family.
Hudson's critics say his shrewdest move has been displacing families in the relocation program he instituted in August. It provides Hudson with the best of both worlds: He gets rid of his tenants and still keeps his salary overseeing the authority's Section 8 program, a federal rent-assistance program for low-income people living in market-rate housing.
The displacement has its beginnings in the authority's request for federal dollars to demolish three of the Sanford complexes: Lake Monroe Terrace, built in 1972; Edward Higgins Terrace, built in 1952; and Cowan Moughton Terrace, built in 1959.
HUD denied the $19.5 million to tear down and rebuild the units, saying an inspection indicated that "wholesale replacement of the elements is not warranted."
A separate investigation, by contractor Alun M. Jones and paid for by Central Florida Legal Services, reached the same conclusion. "I find it hard to believe that anyone could say that these buildings should be demolished because of structural integrity," Jones wrote in his report.
At the same time HUD notified the authority that it couldn't demolish the apartments, it issued the report questioning the $843,666 that was supposed to have been spent on renovating Lake Monroe Terrace, easily the worst-maintained of the six complexes. The report noted that, although HUD had called Hudson three times, he had failed to notify tenants of an impending inspection visit or to have records available for HUD officials to examine.
That report also said what was on everybody's mind: that Hudson appeared eager to use the buildings' problems, such as lead-based paint and asbestos, as reasons to demolish the buildings. "The housing authority was apparently not concerned over [these issues] other than to use it as an excuse for demolition," it noted. "Consequently, the housing authority has placed itself under a serious liability risk."
The report did little to deter Hudson from his goal of moving 90 families out of the projects. He has continued the relocation effort even though, as early as Aug. 24, HUD told him in a letter to cease and desist. "You are hereby directed to stop relocating families until an acceptable relocation plan has been received and approved by our office," wrote Niesz, of the HUD office in Jacksonville.
But rather than use federal money, Hudson is funding the effort with money from a Seminole County program called Tenant-Based Rental Assistance. The TBRA program, as it's called, is similar to the federal Section 8 program, but with one big difference: Section 8 is unlimited. Once a tenant qualifies, the rent subsidy is his or hers for as long as he or she falls within low-income guidelines. In contrast, TBRA funds are temporary, lasting from 12 to 24 months. After that, residents are on their own, regardless of household income.
Which means that many people could be out on the streets if the projects are torn down or condemned. "Where am I going to go?" asks Carolyn Murphy, a Lake Monroe Terrace tenant who was relocated in August to a rundown apartment complex in east Sanford. "I don't have nowhere else to go. Every place else is too expensive."
Hudson has proposed creating an escrow program to help relocated residents buy a home at the end of their two years on TBRA. Tenants would be expected to pay the authority a small sum each month, say $100, which the authority would match so the tenant has enough money at the end for a down payment on a house. After two years, the authority hopes, many project tenants will become homeowners.
That plan sounded good when another authority employee announced it to tenants at a meeting last summer. But then Hudson got involved, and now those tenants are worried he'll drain the program of its funds. "I don't want Tim Hudson getting my money, period," says Lynelle Watson.
But not only is Hudson fostering doubt and fear with his relocations; he's also successfully tied up the TBRA program. People waiting for public housing -- and there are hundreds on the authority's lists -- can't move into the projects because Hudson is moving everyone out and leaving the apartments vacant. And people seeking temporary help through TBRA can't get money because Hudson is using those funds to pay for his relocations.
County administrators were unaware that Hudson was using the $250,000 TBRA program for his own purposes, but say they are powerless to stop him.
"We didn't say he couldn't do it," says Buddy Balagia, whose Seminole County office administers the grant money. "But we don't like the idea of wasting one subsidy on another." Balagia says his only remedy is to ensure that the new TBRA contract, which should be written this month, includes a provision forbidding the use of county money for people who already live in public housing.
Meantime, the more than 115 apartments that Hudson has boarded up have created a dangerous ghost town in an area already known for drug sales and car thefts.
Several months ago, children set a sofa on fire in one of the abandoned apartments, badly damaging two units. And on Nov. 4, residents rescued a Sanford woman who had been beaten up and left for dead in an abandoned apartment in the Lake Monroe Terrace complex. "If I hadn't sent my children past there, she would have died in that apartment," says Trumella James, a Lake Monroe Terrace tenant who, for now, refuses to move out of her apartment.
Other tenants resisting Hudson's program continue to seek guidance from Legal Services. "Whatever Ms. Kaye says do, we'll do," says Noble. "But for now, we're staying. We're not going anywhere."
Kaye refuses to disclose how she might stop Hudson, saying, "We're considering a lawsuit. There's a number of possibilities."
It isn't clear how all of this will play out. But the authority's board of directors recently announced that it will try to privatize 225 apartments. Hudson told the Orlando Sentinel it would cost the authority $5 million and take 10 years to renovate just one of the complexes, Lake Monroe Terrace. "A private developer could come in and raise $6 million or $7 million and turn it around in eight months," Hudson was quoted as saying.
A better way might be for Hudson and his board to step down and allow others to take over. Distrust among residents is too high, the board's failings too large, and Hudson's management too weak for the Sanford Housing Authority to continue running as it has been.
HUD itself has come to the same conclusion: "Physical, social and management changes can be easily made to turn the developments into viable places for low-income citizens to live."
For long-suffering residents, the change can't come quick enough.
"What I don't understand," says tenant Amanda Geter, "is why HUD keeps letting him go on."