Just one week after the Sol.illaquists of Sound were voted the best hip-hop act in Orlando's by Orlando Weekly readers, the band faced a much harsher audience: the Edgewood City Code Enforcement Board.
This wasn't your average town hall meeting. On July 21, band members Swamburger (Asaan Brooks), DiViNCi (Glen Valencia Jr.) Alexandrah (Alexandrah Sarton), Tonya Combs and a group of nearly 25 supporters walked single-file into a small hearing room at the modest Edgewood City Council building on Larue Avenue, just off South Orange Avenue. The right side of the room was filled with young artists and musicians who had come to stand behind the band; some Cuban, some Egyptian, some Filipino none of them white.
On the left side of the room, in the back, was the opposition: Luke Crossley, owner of Crossley's Nursery and Garden Center and a neighbor of the bandmates, all of whom live together in a house on Alleman Drive.
Presiding over the hearing was a quorum of five code enforcement officials who stared blankly ahead, avoiding direct eye contact with the audience. Edgewood police officer Ron Beardslee stood at the front podium with his back to the crowd, nervously rifling though a stack of complaints and city ordinances, the legal framework for evicting the band.
The hearing was the result of a summons from the city of Edgewood. Code enforcement officers notified the band's landlord, April Castellano, that her six tenants had 10 days to get out. Castellano was looking at a $250-a-day fine if she didn't comply.
The musicians didn't play their music too loud, host wild parties or trash the house. Their transgression is that they are not a family, as defined by the city of Edgewood.
Sections 26-51 and 26-40 of the Edgewood city code state that no more than three persons can occupy a single-family residence unless they are related by blood, marriage or adoption. Orlando and Winter Park have similar codes. The laws are meant to prevent people from establishing boarding houses in the middle of neighborhoods zoned for R-1 single-family residences. No one goes door-to-door monitoring unrelated tenants.
"The code is usually only enforced if complaints are called in about excessive noise or cars," says David Cramer, a real estate agent for ReMax Properties Southwest. "Otherwise, no one usually investigates for something like this."
Edgewood city attorney Virginia Cassady suspects that this code is violated in high numbers. "Homes around college campuses probably [have a high rate of code violators], because students oftentimes purchase a home and rent the rooms to their friends."
Since no one goes to great lengths to monitor and verify whether homeowners are complying with the code, there could be thousands of people living in Central Florida doing exactly the same thing, especially in college towns. FAMILY VALUES
One by one, the Sol.illaquists approached the podium and eloquently pled their case. The code enforcement board was visibly moved by the display. "We are a family, further affirmed by the very definition of family which includes two or more people who share goals or values, have long-term commitments to one another and who reside in the same dwelling place," said DiViNCi, a producer for the band who also operates the drum machine. "We are each other's support group, as well as a constant reminder to each other that family can and does exist beyond the boundaries of a partial definition that tends to be the most dominant." DiViNCi presented the board with dozens of letters written by supporters, urging the board members to let them stay.
For the past two years, the Sol.illaquists and two other musicians, Julian Picaza and Don Legend (Qusai Kheder) have lived in the five-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home, nestled among luxurious estates on the narrow cul-de-sac of Edgewood's Alleman drive. Four of the six roommates are dating they consider themselves married, even if Edgewood doesn't.
In comparison to the gated mansions on their street, it's easy to see why their home is viewed as the sore thumb of the neighborhood. Painted a murky shade of gray, the house sits on a bed of unkempt grass. The roof is littered with fallen tree limbs. Six cars line the driveway and spill onto the street.
Beardslee, the police chief, said at the hearing that he started receiving complaints about the cars and the house's appearance in February of 2004.
"First the police came to our door complaining that our grass was too long," says DiViNCi in an interview before the hearing. "Then they came again telling us we weren't allowed to park on our lawn, even though our cars were actually parked on a gravel area, not grass. Not long after that, they were back here telling us our cars looked bad on the street, even though they made us park there."
But since the Sol.illaquists weren't violating any of the city's parking codes, Beardslee couldn't do much about it. That's when an unidentified neighbor brought the city's code on unrelated tenants to Beardslee's attention, and asked him to enforce it.
The band members were shocked to learn that someone wanted them out, especially since they tried to maintain friendly relations with the neighbors. "We collectively wrote a letter and personally delivered it to all the houses in the neighborhood telling them if they ever had a problem with noise or anything, to contact us at any time. We haven't received one phone call," says DiViNCi. NO PARDON
So far this year, nobody else in Edgewood has been evicted because they aren't related. In fact, says Beardslee, nothing like this has ever happened before in Edgewood.
"This is a unique situation," Beardslee said prior to the hearing. "We understand that these codes may seem silly because they were written a long time ago, but it's our duty to enforce them anyway. This is an old, established neighborhood, nobody wants a boarding house here because if we start allowing that, the population of Edgewood would become transient."
At the hearing, Beardslee stressed that the city didn't have the authority to pardon the band, as that would set a bad precedent. "If a motorcycle gang came into town and started living in one house, and we allowed you guys to stay, they would argue that they should be able to stay too."
"But we aren't a motorcycle gang!" replied several of the Sol.illaquists in unison. "We never wanted to cause anyone harm," DiViNCi added. "If the cars are a problem, we're willing to get rid of them, just don't tell us we're not a family."
After an hour and a half of deliberation, the board decided they had to enforce the code, even if they didn't want to. "Our job is to assess whether or not a code has been violated, and if it has, we must see that the situation is corrected. But my heart is not in this," said code enforcement chairman Dick Grabowski. "I have to admit, when I first saw you guys crossing the parking lot, I wanted to turn around and run in the other direction," he added with a nervous chuckle. "But I have been overly impressed by your devotion, sincerity and honesty regarding this matter, and I have to tell you, I don't want to enforce this code."
The other board members shared Grabowski's sentiment. "To me, you guys are a family," said board member Richard Schnakenberg, saying he thought the code was "ridiculous."
What the board could do, and did, was extend the time the band had to vacate the house. Now they have to be out by Sept. 20, or face a $100 daily fine until compliance is reached. Board members toyed with the idea of giving the tenants years to comply with the code, but ultimately decided that the time frame had to be "reasonable." Cassady, the city attorney, told the tenants their only option was to bring their case before the city council to try and get the code changed, a difficult process that could take as long as two years.
Gary Camarda, the landlord's representative, thinks a much bigger violation is occurring. "These people's rights are being violated. The city is trying their best to evict them because they either don't like the way the house looks, or they don't like the number of cars. But since they weren't breaking any codes, they searched for the one way they could evict them, and that was through the family ordinance," he says.
He adds, "I'm a licensed realtor, and my state license says I cannot discriminate when renting out a home. How can a city's rule override a state's rule?"
For the Sol.illaquists, the larger question is who defines what is and isn't a family.