Diocese of Southeast Florida’s affordable housing uninhabitable since June; seniors left in limbo

By Egan Millard
Posted Aug 11, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] St. Andrews Residence, a waterfront high-rise in West Palm Beach, Florida, run by the Diocese of Southeast Florida as affordable housing for seniors, has been uninhabitable since mid-June after a series of dangerous incidents. All 177 residents were forced to leave indefinitely, and most of them have been living in hotel rooms paid for by the St. Andrews board, which has committed to paying for residents’ rooms and meals through Aug. 21, but it’s unclear whether the board will continue to pay for their accommodations until the building is repaired.

The 15-story building was purchased in 2009 by St. Andrews Residence of the Diocese of Southeast Florida Inc., a nonprofit corporation created by the diocese, which rents the building under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 202 program for subsidized housing for people over age 62. SPM, a firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, manages the property and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The building is situated directly on the Intracoastal Waterway in downtown West Palm Beach, between a waterfront amphitheater park and the Trump Plaza condo towers. It advertises amenities like a fitness center, beauty shop, library and community dining room.

But St. Andrews has been plagued with problems in recent years, including three instances of electrical malfunctions causing smoke or flames. Residents told The Palm Beach Post the building has pervasive black mold, which has damaged furniture and clothing, and that its elevators don’t work properly. However, the Rev. Paul Rasmus – chair of the building’s operating committee – told local NBC affiliate station WPTV that he thinks there is “very little, if any” mold. Rasmus retired as rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, just south of West Palm Beach, in June 2019.

Questions addressed to the diocese and Bishop Peter Eaton were referred to Aimee Adler Cooke, a communications consultant. When asked by Episcopal News Service why the dangerous conditions reported by local media outlets persisted for so long, Adler Cooke said, “We aren’t responding to the accuracy or inaccuracy of media stories.”

In October 2018, part of the rooftop air conditioning system at St. Andrews Residence caught on fire, leaving the residents without air conditioning for about a week, according to WPTV.

On March 2, 2020, residents had to be temporarily evacuated in the middle of the night when an electrical malfunction caused parts of the building to fill with smoke.

On June 14, another electrical malfunction caused smoke in the building. This time, the system that distributes electricity to all 15 floors was found to be damaged beyond repair and would need to be replaced. According to The Palm Beach Post, the city declared the building uninhabitable and the residents were forced to leave until repairs were made, with no consistent time frame for when they might return. Some went to stay with friends or relatives. Those who had nowhere else to go – 152 of the residents – were put up in hotels around the area and have been receiving three meals a day, all paid for by the board, Adler Cooke confirmed.

All this happened just as Florida’s coronavirus outbreak was spiraling out of control. Since all the residents are over 62 and many have underlying health conditions, they are at high risk for serious illness and death from COVID-19. Some residents who had been moved to hotels told the Post they were worried about the increased risk of infection associated with moving into a hotel.

On Aug. 2, SPM delivered a memo to the residents staying in hotels along with their meals, the Post reported. SPM said it was making a temporary fix to the building’s electrical system and every unit had to be inspected before the tenants could return. Then the memo said something that alarmed the residents whose hotel rooms and meals were being paid for.

“We have secured continued funding for that purpose through August 14th, but we cannot assure that additional money will be available after that date, or that the building will be ready for occupancy on that date,” the memo read.

Some took that to mean that they might soon have no place to go.

“It kind of had me quite upset because I could end up homeless,” said 77-year-old Jim Jensen, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is staying at a Red Roof Inn about six miles away, according to the Post.

Several residents have sought help from the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, which is working with the county to identify sources of funds that could continue paying for the hotel rooms if the board stops paying, the Post reported.

Adler Cooke told ENS the St. Andrews board has extended funding for hotels and meals through Aug. 21. When asked what will happen to the residents if the building is not ready for occupancy by then, Adler Cooke said, “All are working around the clock to determine a safe reentry date.”

Adler Cooke would not answer questions about whether the building next door, St. James Residence, is also associated with the diocese or whether it has experienced similar problems, and she would not say who is on the St. Andrews board. Some documents filed with the state of Florida and the Internal Revenue Service list Eaton and other diocesan leaders as board members, while others list a larger group of different people.

Despite having no guarantee that they will have a place to live in a week and a half, St. Andrews residents told the Post they have been paying rent. Adler Cooke said the board is considering rent abatement. And while some residents have expressed fears that the diocese will sell the building, Adler Cooke told ENS there are no plans to do so.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.