( Source: Megan O’Matz Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (MCT) — County Commissioner Dale Holness foresees a “great renaissance” in central Broward and recognizes that “quality of life means maintaining beautiful neighborhoods,” according to his government Web site.
But for years Holness held title to a Fort Lauderdale rental property that became an unattractive wreck. He did not repair it. The house fell into foreclosure and city code violation fines began mounting — totaling $6,425 currently and still growing.
Late last year, Holness disposed of the home by deeding it back to its former owner.
The Sun Sentinel learned of Holness’ connection with the vacant single-story home at 2020 NW 28th Ave. while investigating how the banking industry has failed to ensure the upkeep on thousands of foreclosed properties across South Florida.
At the Fort Lauderdale house, it was Holness, one of the county’s top elected officials, who was owner for eight years. White boards now cover the windows. Bottles and other trash are scattered around the lawn. A screen enclosure over the backyard patio is shredded. Public notices from the city and bank representatives are taped to the front door and garage.
A licensed real estate broker, Holness said he should not be looked upon more harshly than other property owners who have struggled to maintain the condition of homes during the recession.
“I’m just another person in this community, another human being that suffered from this downturn,” he said in an interview.
Holness acquired the house in 2003 in an oddly structured transaction. Facing foreclosure, the owner, Henry C. Eccleston, was introduced to a woman associated with Holness’ real estate firm, All Broward Realty in Plantation. They struck a deal in which Eccleston transferred title to Holness through a “quit claim” deed, which does not guarantee a property is free and clear of all liens. Indeed, the mortgage remained in Eccleston’s name.
In an interview, Eccleston said he was paid $2,199 for the house, but had expected almost five times that. Holness said that the sum paid was all that was left from the $10,000 he put up to bring the mortgage payments up to date and cover other fees to keep the house from being auctioned off by the lender.
The intent, he said, was to help restore Eccleston’s credit rating.
“It was a fair deal,” Holness said. “It was meant to help him out.”
Broward Circuit Court records show the foreclosure judgment against Eccleston was dismissed in August 2003, a month after he transferred the title to Holness.
Tenants rented the house, and Holness paid the mortgage for several years, he said. Eventually, though, the house became unoccupied.
Thieves ripped into walls and stole the copper wiring, the air conditioning unit, pipes and plumbing fixtures.
In March 2009, while the deed was in Holness’ name, the mortgage payments stopped, according to a new foreclosure action against Eccleston filed in Broward Circuit Court by Chase Home Finance in June 2009. Holness is also named in the complaint.
The bank demanded $106,382 for unpaid principal, back taxes, hazard insurance, late charges and other fees.
In February 2010, a Fort Lauderdale code enforcement officer found a pile of trash on the swale and cited Holness for failing to tend to it. Workers mowing the lawn at the time said they had been hired by the bank and would haul away the garbage, city records state.
In May 2011, Fort Lauderdale issued another violation notice against Holness for failing to obtain a necessary permit before boarding up the windows at the house. The city ordered him to correct the matter or face a $25 per day fine. The matter was not addressed and the fines as of last week totaled $6,425 and continue to accrue.
“It was not always paid attention to,” Holness said of the property. “Once the vandalism occurred, it was kind of difficult to manage.”
In November 2011, Holness filed legal paperwork deeding the house back to Eccleston, a move that Eccleston said he was unaware of until contacted by the Sun Sentinel.
Holness said: “I believe we told him, yes.”
Seventy cents was paid in documentary stamp tax. The deed says it is “an intra-family conveyance and therefore minimum documentary stamps are required.” But the men say they are not related. Regardless, more tax should have been paid, the Sun Sentinel was told by a real estate attorney and two state and county tax experts that it consulted.
An additional $540 in taxes would have been due based on the unpaid mortgage principal of $77,147 noted in the foreclosure document, the newspaper calculated, using a formula provided by the government officials. When told of the Sun Sentinel’s findings, Holness said it’s possible that an error occurred and that he will look into it and pay whatever amount is required.
Florida imposes fines and interest on unpaid tax.
Holness’ attorney, William Ashcraft, told the Sun Sentinel in an email that he informed the commissioner this week of the pertinent law and said Holness replied that “he will advise the Department of Revenue of the error, and pay the necessary documentary stamp tax or have it paid.”
Holness said title to the property reverted to Eccleston so he “would be able to deal with the bank more directly.”
Now 62, disabled and living in Syracuse, N.Y., Eccleston told the Sun Sentinel he thought the house was no longer his. But he said he’s working with Holness’ firm and the bank to find a new buyer for it.
That’s because in letters, Chase has offered Eccleston between $10,000 to $20,000 to facilitate a short sale, in which the property would be sold, with the bank’s approval, for less than the amount due on the loan.
“It’s not too late to avoid foreclosure,” an April 5 letter to Eccleston states.
The foreclosure case filed against Eccleston and Holness has been pending in the Broward Circuit Court for three years.
For now, the house remains vacant. Fort Lauderdale taxpayers have paid $668 so far this year to mow the lawn. As of Friday, fines of $25 per day were being imposed by the city until the torn screen enclosure is repaired.
An online real estate ad for the house brightly describes it this way: “Handyman Special!!!! Property has been vandalized! It is in need of all new plumbing, drywall, new kitchen, a few windows have been broken and a new a/c unit. Property also has an active roof leak.”
Holness said he doesn’t have the estimated $30,000 it would take to repair the house. “No way. No how. I can’t do it.”
He said he’s working as Eccleston’s agent to line up an investor to buy the home, probably for about $20,000.
Mary Hopkins, 72, who lives across the street, envisions a different outcome.
“It probably needs tearing down,” she said.
©2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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