Waiting to go home

Some homeowners in Century Village havenít been able

to live in their condos since a fire six years ago

Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald

By Donna Gehrke-White

Published March 15, 2011


Fabienne "Faye" Adam thought she smelled burnt toast. Actually, it was a fire that had erupted in her part of the Century Village condo building in Deerfield Beach .


Dressed in a nightgown, she rushed out through the smoke that night in July 2005.


Adam, 80, has not lived in her cozy apartment since.

She and owners of eight other units in the village's Ventnor "B" building were forced out of their damaged homes and have not been able to live in them since. Along the way there have been lawsuits, hearings, a bankrupt insurance company, Hurricane Wilma and building code revisions -- but no completed renovation.


Now, nearly six years later, the damaged units are still considered "unsafe structures" and uninhabitable, with yellow tape warning people to stay away. Two elderly owners have died.

Faye Adam, board president of Ventnor B sweeping what's supposed to be her kitchen.

"You lose everything -- I don't know where to begin," said Adam, who is president of the building's condo association . "It's a hole that has no bottom ... All of a sudden everything is gone."


"I do not know what it has taken so long," said Daniel Britto, an attorney who represents an insurance brokerage company, Plastridge Agency, one of the defendants named in a lawsuit by the burned-out owners. The agency's executives have "done as much as they could" to resolve the longstanding issue, said Britto, who added that the court cases -- and even appeals -- should have been settled by now.


Joseph D. Garrity, attorney for the association, agrees. But, he said, the legal issues remain far from resolved.

The plight of the Ventnor "B" owners is a lesson for all condo owners: Make sure you are familiar with your building's insurance and that you are properly insured, said Jan Bergemann, a statewide grassroots activist who runs Cyber Citizens for Justice. In one case, owners found out after a fire that their condo association hadn't taken out insurance. "They are the ones who are suffering," he said.


View the policy


Owners are entitled to see their building's insurance policy and should insist on viewing it, Bergemann said. Older buildings especially should have replacement coverage to ensure that owners will have enough money to replace equipment.


Today at Ventnor "B," tensions run high. Some neighbors do not talk to each other anymore. Owners of four units sued the condo association. The condo association, in turn, has sued Century Village's umbrella association, Century Village East Master Management.

Attorney Joseph Garrity, fighting for the condo owners being able to return in their homes, explaining the structure and cost of the current fire walls.


Owners recently received an insurance check that brought settlement proceeds to about $442,000, said Adam. But that is still hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the cost of repairs that would bring the building up to date with building codes, she said.

"You can't put the cart before the horse -- you need the money before you make all the repairs," said attorney Garrity.


So far, the association has repaired the roof and firewalls in the attic, including the replacement of 33 roof trusses. The firewalls alone cost $58,000, Garrity said.

Indeed, the units may be worth less than what it will cost to repair them, thanks to the troubled real estate market.


But owners still want to go home. They have been staying with friends or relatives ó or renting temporary quarters.


Janet Rupp, one of the youngest owners, is in remission from cancer. She wants to enjoy the one-bedroom ground-floor unit that she had lovingly fixed up. "It was beautiful," she said. "It was a little dollhouse." Now it is a shell. Walls are gutted. Even the flooring is gone. "See the water damage," she said, pointing out black mold. "It's heartbreaking."


Ross Gilson, another owner, considers himself lucky. He had married and moved to a nearby larger condo when the fire broke out near his unit. But he said, "I continue to share in the financial expense of assessments for a property that I can neither use nor sell." Plus, as a director of the Ventnor "B" condo association, he has had to go through the headaches of the reconstruction and legal battles.


The electrical fire started when an upstairs unit's ceiling fan malfunctioned and fell one night, as Adam was preparing to go to bed.


Adam called the fire department and alerted other neighbors. One man in his 80s wanted Adam, then almost 75, to climb the flight of stairs through the smoke to use a fire extinguisher.

But Adam said she first had to make sure everyone was out, including a man in his 90s who was nearly blind.

"When something like this happens, it is sheer survival," she said.


Hole in wall


After the fire was extinguished, it was found that cable TV installers months earlier had "caused a hole to be made in the [fire] wall large enough for a human to pass through,"  according to a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 192 Century

Faye Adam looking out of what would be her kitchen window. Only in her imagination could she see what should be all there. She is quite angry at the way their  elderly residents are being treated.

Village condo buildings and their 4,160 units. That helped the fire to spread, causing a "heightened state of danger," the lawsuit alleged. The crews were from the Adelphia cable company, which later was sold to Comcast.


Comcast has called the lawsuit's allegations false and unfounded, with spokesman Spero Canton saying, "The safety of our customers is a paramount concern for us."


Comcast conducted its own investigation and "found that prior to Adelphia rewiring the buildings, new insulation had been installed in the attic area of the buildings" and those workers had "cut man size holes in the firewalls in order to access the entire attic area of each building," Canton said. The company told the master associationís attorney of its findings, Canton added.


Century Village's master association oversees the security, cable and other community-wide services and was also named in the lawsuit. The suit accuses the master association of not fully insuring the Ventnor "B" building for replacement costs.


Patrick Murphy, attorney for the umbrella master association, did not return telephone calls.


Ira Somerset, president of the umbrella group, said he could not talk about details of the case. But, he said, "Iis a very complex issue. There are many facets to it." Somerset said he and others sympathize with residents still dealing with the fire nearly six years later. 


The situation was aggravated by Hurricane Wilma, which damaged thousands of home in the area later that year, Garrity said. The Ventnor "B"fire claim got lost amid all the other insurance claims.


Then the property insurance company for Ventnor "B" went bankrupt in 2006 as the result of damage from hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.


Another insurer


The Ventnor "B" owners had to go through the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association that was set up by the Florida Legislature to handle claims filed with insolvent property insurance companies. Today the condo association for Ventnor "B" has control over its insurance --  as it should have all along -- and now insures the building for full replacement costs, Adam said.


The association is also moving ahead with repairs, even though it does not have all the necessary money yet. It has hired a contractor to replace as many damaged windows and walls as it can before it runs out of the insurance money, Adam said. Everything is more expensive because the building's new materials, equipment and furnishings have to be up to code. At least the recession has made labor costs cheaper, Garrity said.


Now 89, Ruth Lizner, a displaced homeowner, tries to remain upbeat. She hopes she finally will be able to return home this summer.

"It has been heartbreaking," she said. "We just want to get back in our place before we meet our Maker."

Ruth Lizner, a seasonal resident can not wait to return to where she enjoyed being...