More than a year after Helen, a single mother with three children and a local state park ranger, was evicted from her home at 292 Gardenia St, she finally got the funds she was promised when forced to vacate. She got just over $11,000. Click here to see the settlement agreement between the Village and Helen.
The Village closed on the property in January 2020 while Helen and the children were residing there. The Village asked her to leave even though she had four months left on her lease. The utilities had been shut off by the seller. Helen had no option.
At closing, Islamorada was credited with $1,300 from the seller, Helen’s last month’s rent. She didn’t get back the $1,300 when she was evicted. In addition, she was told she would get money to relocate as well as additional funds since the only rental she could find during the height of the season was more expensive.
Without getting her last month’s rent and security deposit along with the other funds she was expecting from the Village, her financial circumstances were dire. She soon found her only option was to leave the Keys.
The Village said they were planning to demolish the home to build affordable housing, the reason they did not honor the last four months of Helen’s lease. The demolition actually took place eight months after the closing.
What about the affordable housing plan that seemed so urgent that the Village had to evict a single mother who was current on her rent? On June 15, 2021, nearly 18 months after evicting Helen, the Village issued an RFQ to find a developer to build affordable housing on the site.
Click here to see the RFQ.
Any guess about who will be responding to the RFQ?
While Helen’s job in Islamorada was her dream job, she now lives and works as a ranger in North Carolina. And she is happy to have finally gotten the money that Islamorada owed her.
Timeline: 292 Gardenia Street and Village
September 27, 2018 Mayor Chris Sante reported a homeowner approached him about properties he was interested in selling.
Mayor Sante asked for Council agreement to direct the Village Manager to contact the property owner and negotiate a price for the land. Council expressed agreement with the Mayor’s request.
January 31, 2019 The Council approved the purchase of the three lots for affordable housing.
April 1, 2019 the Village closed on the purchase of three full lots and a portion of a 4th from John Mannix for $315,000… the beginning of an affordable housing project referred to as the Gardenia Project. Two of the lots are on U.S. One and adjoin the sewer facility to the south. One lot is on Gardenia, next to Plantation Key School.
November 17, 2019 – Chris Sante (no longer on council) signed an offer on the property at 292 Gardenia for $539,000 cash (with $1,000 deposit) contingent on Village development approval… This adjoins the lots purchased by the Village April 1, 2019.
November 20, 2019 – Seller John Mannix signed Sante’s offer on purchase agreement… John Mannix to Chris Sante – 292 Gardenia St at $539,000 cash, now a binding contract. (Click here to see contract )
November 21, 2019 council meeting – the Council voted to direct the Village Manager to negotiate a purchase of 292 Gardenia St for $539,000. No tab – just a motion. No council discussion, no public comment. No disclosure that Chris Sante had the property under contract for $539,000.
From Minutes of November 21, 2019… note there is no council discussion or public comment regarding a $539,000 purchase and no disclosure the property was under contract as of the day before with Chris Sante for $539,000:
Note that the manager stated the Village could “place three affordable units on the property.” Is there already a plan to demolish the existing CBS two-story structure that is 2,576 sq ft of interior space and three separate living areas?
December 11, 2019 – Village provided a $1,000 check for deposit on 292 Gardenia to Hershoff Lupino law firm.
December 12, 2019 – Chris Sante signed an assignment of contract – turning over his contract to purchase to the Village, acknowledged by Seth Lawless. No further action by council to expend village funds before the purchase agreement was assigned to the Village by the manager.
December 12, 2019 – Council meeting, the council voted to reserve 9 affordable housing allocations for the Gardenia Street Project mentioning the three lots purchased on April 1, 2019 and the fact 292 Gardenia is pending. No acknowledgement as to how the purchase became “pending.”
January 2, 2020 Tenant at 292 Gardenia got note from Chris Sante (Sante is not on council and no longer had a contract on the property) asking her to leave. And he was working with the Village to get her two more weeks and that the seller (John) owes her 4 months rent at $1,300/month since he has to evict everyone. According to Helen, the tenant, she paid $1,300 in rent for January and then as a result of Village pressure found a place for $1,700/month… more than she could afford. According to tenant, Sante suggested that she would get the $400/month extra it cost for rent plus moving expenses since she had to move prior to the end of her lease.
Click to read the story from Free Press about tenant Helen Grekel
January 9, 2020 the council voted to expend $589,000 to purchase the home at 292 Gardenia that was under contract for $539,000 – $50,000 less than this. Cannot find evidence that the extra $50,000 was spent based on review of financial records.
The resolution to spend $589,000 to purchase a non-waterfront home that would later be demolished by the Village so the property could be developed for affordable housing passed with no discussion.
TAB 11: Resolution Authorizing the Village Manager to Execute Documents and Expend Funds for the Purchase of a Parcel on Plantation Key for the Purpose of Affordable Housing Development. Village Attorney Roget Bryan read the title of the resolution. Village Manager Seth Lawless presented the staff report recommending approval. Mayor Mike Forster opened public comment; no comment was offered. Councilwoman Deb Gillis made a motion to approve. Councilman Jim Mooney seconded the motion. Council voted and the motion passed 3-0.
January 13, 2020 – closing on 292 Gardenia $539,000 – closing statement included a credit from the seller to the Village of $1,300 for last month’s rent that seller was holding for tenant. And 13 days of prorated rent.
According to tenant, she spent days moving. Never got any money from John Mannix, the seller, Sante, or the Village for vacating before the end of her lease. Without the money owed (last month’s rent and security deposit), her financial circumstances were dire using limited savings to pay higher rent and another first, last and security for the new rental.
While the closing statement shows the last month’s rent of $1,300 was credited to Village by seller on January 13, 2020, the Village did not pay the tenant her last month’s rent. While she had months left on her lease, she moved. While still moving, her A/C was removed. The Village was cleaning up the property and left piles of junk at the foot of her stairway that she had to climb through – cut her foot on glass – right through her shoe. As a single mother with children in the local public school, she struggled to find appropriate housing in the middle of the winter season. Without the money owed (last month’s rent and security deposit), her financial circumstances were dire having used limited savings to pay higher rent and another first, last and security for the new rental. Not able to hire a mover, she moved as much as she could of her personal property herself but had to leave her furniture behind. Helen was a park ranger at Lignumvitae State Park. She now has left the Keys – could not afford to stay.
Click here to view the Closing Statement
January 23, 2020 Chris Sante was appointed to council
February 10, 2020, the Village applied for a FEMA grant for construction of eight new single family, 2 bedroom 1 ½ bath affordable housing units, as rentals. The grant requested was for $2.911 million to cover the developer’s construction costs, including contractor’s fee of $310,017, site preparation, and other expenses. The grant specifically named the Key Largo Lions Club Foundation as the developer, represented by their board president and founder, Chris Sante, also a member of the Islamorada Village Council. The Lions Club Foundation was never approved as a qualified affordable housing developer by the Village. No evidence was found in minutes of public meetings where the Council approved this organization to potentially be the recipient of a $2.9 million grant. An outside consultant prepared the grant application.
Click here for grant application for nearly $3 million in funding for developer, with Councilman Chris Sante representing the developer. Included in the grant application was a request for funding of $10,500 in relocation expenses for the tenant.
The grant application stated that the Village had the property appraised and paid fair market value. A public record request was made to get the appraisal. The appraisal was done by the seller, not the Village. It was dated August 2019, months before the purchase agreement was finalized between the seller, John Mannix and buyer, Chris Sante, and then assigned later to the Village by Sante. The appraised value was $510,000, $29,000 less than the purchase price. A significant fact in the appraisal was the value of the CBS three unit building that the Village intended to demolish as all comparable sales were developed, not vacant lots.
Click here for Mannix appraisal.
April 11 2020 The grant request was denied for numerous reasons including the developer not being a qualified entity.
Click here for an email from the grant writer informing the Village Manager of the denial.
Habitat for Humanity had been previously qualified by the Village as an appropriate entity to do affordable housing projects. Perhaps they should have been considered as the developers for this project and the nearly $3 million grant.
August 17, 2020 – Village applied for a demolition permit for house.
September 14, 2020 House at 292 Gardenia is gone.
Since April 1, 2019, the Village has invested at least $854,000 purchase price, plus demolition costs and closing costs to acquire property next to our sewer facility along U.S. One as a site for 9 affordable housing units that have been reserved for the property. There are apparently three market rate non-waterfront building rights with the property.
November 2020 Correspondence with Village Manager:
Acting Village Manager, Maria Bassett, sent an email explaining the situation with the 292 Gardenia tenant being evicted.
Click here to view the email from Maria Bassett
January 14, 2021
Bassett presented the council with the background information regarding properties along Woods Avenue as well as the Gardenia Street properties that the Village has acquired for affordable housing at a total cost of $1,368,000 utilizing affordable housing in-lieu-of fees accounted for in the Affordable Housing Fund and discretionary sales surtax accounted for in the Capital Project Fund.
Staff recommended that the Village Council consider a new RFQ for the development of individual dwelling units for sale at the Woods Corner and Gardenia Street properties, issued to find a single contractor to develop and manage affordable/workforce housing at those two locations. The intent would be for the developer to incur the remaining costs of construction and project management with a land lease from the Village. Compensation to the developer would occur through the sale of the properties.
The council decided to have the Achievable Housing Committee assist with the process.
January 19, 2021
The Achievable Housing Committee met and directed staff to prepare the RFQ for review at their March meeting.
Gardenia St. Case Study Documentation
2011 Site Plan
New (2018) Site Plan
2019 Notice of Approval
Department Of Health Citation