Fort Myers neighborhood's HOA holds families hostage


Article Courtesy of The News-Press

By Melanie Payne

Published February 24, 2010


When I was gathering information for this column, I had an idea.

My husband and the couple across the street could register as officers of a homeowners association. The four of us would hold all the offices. We would charge our neighbors dues. If they didn't pay, we would put liens on their homes, and we wouldn't let them vote on how the money was spent or show them any receipts unless they paid up.

Of course, this would never fly off McGregor Boulevard. But in Hope Gardens, it's exactly what's going on in a neighborhood on the east side of Fort Myers south of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard.

Developed by the Fort Myers' Community Redevelopment Agency, the Hope Gardens development provided home ownership opportunities to low-income families. Anthony and Carletha Griffin moved into the last of 30 homes built there when the development was completed in 2007.

Carletha Griffin told the neighbors she had been appointed the resident agent by the CRA director.

Over the last couple of years, Griffin commandeered Hope Gardens Owners' Association, nearly tripling the dues and taking over collection and control of the funds.

When people refused to pay without a vote and without evidence of how the funds were spent or any documentation, the owners' association, under Griffin's auspices, put liens on their homes - 37 in all since May 2008.

"Carletha Griffin is behind all the shenanigans," said Levon Simms, councilman for the area.

In at least two instances, Simms said, mortgage companies tapped escrow accounts to pay the dues and release the liens.

These homeowners may not have the money to pay taxes and insurance when it comes due, Simms said.

"What if these people lose their homes? You have a neighborhood with boarded up houses," Simms said. "In the end, it destroys the neighborhood."

"What we have budgeted is the bare minimum," said Anthony Griffin, who is vice president of the association. His wife Carletha, is the treasurer. The president, Lorene Dessin and her daughter Lora Johnson had a family emergency, Carletha Griffin told me, and couldn't come to the meeting we had arranged.

The Griffins do not consider the dues unreasonable. "The thing that gets my gall is they complain about paying $300 and spend that on a barbecue with 40 people," Anthony Griffin said.

Pamela Rahming is one of the people who hasn't paid the $289, but it's not because she doesn't have the money, she said.

Rahming would like to know how the money is being spent and Griffin refuses to provide receipts and open the books.

In 2007, when the dues were $100, 20 property owners paid dues and five made partial payments.

Because only nine households are paid up on their dues those are the only families eligible to vote and run for office, Carletha Griffin said.

Without the association, she said, neighbors would erect fences, sheds and put up clothes lines.

"There are people who want to plant gardens and have chickens. And in 10 years this would be a slum," without enforcement of the rules, Anthony Griffin said.

Carletha Griffin said the couples' only motivation is to better the neighborhood.

"Some people don't understand. We want a place like Pelican Preserve or off McGregor," she said.

Eddie Felton, director of the Homeownership Resource Center, said about 14 of the families in Hope Gardens have reached out to his agency for help. Felton's sister lives in Hope Gardens, and he fears the dissension has adversely affected her health.

"Those people out there are being held hostage by the homeowner's association, which is two families that oversee and control everything," Felton said.

Felton advised the neighbors to go to the city council for help. Hope Gardens was a city project, the city holds a second mortgage on many of the homes. Therefore it should have an interest in resolving the conflict, Felton said.

But last Tuesday when Hope Gardens residents addressed the council, they were told records related to the project were missing. The neighbors were advised to hire a lawyer and pursue it as a civil matter.

Homeowner Biannca Rogers said she would like to see mediation between the Griffins and the rest of the homeowners.

"Instead of bickering, fighting and calling people names, we could have a meeting with the city and a mediator to pull forward," Rogers said.

I agree. If the Griffins love the neighborhood and want the best for it, they should sit down with neighbors and an impartial mediator and talk this problem out instead of using the court to tear apart the neighborhood.