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June 06 2007 - Hurricane causes mold problems for Florida homes

Scattered across Broward County are scars from Hurricane Wilma's rampage 19 months ago: houses, condos and commercial buildings still so badly damaged they can't be occupied.

As a new hurricane season gets under way, at least eight Broward municipalities -- Davie, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Lauderhill, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Pembroke Pines, Sea Ranch Lakes and Tamarac -- still have properties deemed unsafe by building officials after the October 2005 storm. In some cities, entire condominium complexes are uninhabitable; in others, only one building or a house is off limits.

Alexandra "Alix" Kazan, 61, and her husband, Edgar Schneider, 75, are frustrated by the slow pace of repairs at their Stonebridge Gardens condominium complex in Lauderhill. They have been renting a one-bedroom apartment in North Lauderdale for $935 a month while they wait for their one-bedroom unit to be fixed.

"We had five cats; we had to give away three of them to the Humane Society," Kazan said. "Our bird had to go. Our fish we gave away. ... We left the furniture in the condo until we got the apartment. A lot of what we left was ruined by mold and water."

The couple blame the delay on disputes over insurance payments and permits. Their unit, which Schneider bought in 1996, still needs wiring and drywall work, new flooring, wallpaper, light fixtures and paint.

Schneider is retired and on a fixed income. Kazan, a security guard, is working overtime to afford the rent, their $241 mortgage, $194 maintenance fee and monthly assessments of $178. The total is $1,548 a month.

"First opportunity, we're going to sell," Kazan said.

In Davie, the 32-unit Eton Country Side Condos on Davie Road is vacant and under restoration, according to building records. In Sea Ranch Lakes, a private beach club is still closed. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea lists two small motels as still closed, while Lauderhill has several buildings sitting empty. Pembroke Pines has a half dozen mobile homes and a building at North Perry Airport on its list. Oakland Park has a three-unit building still considered unsafe. Tamarac, North Lauderdale, Lauderhill and Pembroke Pines provided lists of properties that were damaged and are in various stages of repairs.

Deerfield Beach did not know whether any of its properties were still uninhabitable, while officials in Hallandale Beach, Hollywood and Sunrise did not respond to repeated requests for the information.

In the adults-only community of Sunrise Lakes, the contractor recently finished reconstructing dozens of damaged units. However, real estate agents say some remain unoccupied because their owners can't afford cabinets, appliances and flooring. Other owners are selling their units "as is" with exposed drywall and cement floors for a new owner to fix up.

Moe Gottlieb hopes to move back into his rebuilt Sunrise Lakes Phase III condo within two months. The two-bedroom unit has new ceilings, new walls and soon will have new appliances and cabinets.

"The storm blew the roof off over my apartment and I lost everything," said Gottlieb, 90, who is staying with a friend in the sprawling retirement complex. He didn't have homeowner's insurance and has spent $17,000 on repairs.

At Southgate Gardens in Tamarac, the board dumped its first contractor and recently hired a new one to gut the 108 condos and start work anew. Toxic mold was discovered in the units and the board is still battling its insurance company.

"I'm tired and frustrated," said treasurer Holly Petrone, a condo owner since 2001. "The process is just so slow due to the insurance companies, the lawyers, even the residents' resistance. ... To realize we need to go through the whole reconstruction process again, it's frustrating. There are nights I can't sleep half the time."

Petrone is paying both her $700 mortgage and $1,300-a-month rent for a Coral Springs apartment. She also pays a monthly condo maintenance fee, which went from $238 to $319 to cover a $352,000 bank loan the condo board took out last summer to pay the first contractor.

Even though the city has declared Southgate Gardens off limits, some residents sneak in and live there illegally. That has caused delays because the building must be vacant for workers to remove the mold.

"There are some reluctant residents," said Stephen Smith, vice president of R&K Contracting Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, which is rebuilding the property. "If they can't see it, they can't smell it, they can't taste it, they don't believe it," Smith said of the mold. "We have a woman living there with two children with no electricity. There is a man there running an extension cord from one building that has power to his unit. It's presenting a delay."

Two months ago, Delia Bauer moved into her condo illegally, bringing her belongings out of storage and spending $10,000 on improvements to the unit, including paint and rugs. Bauer said she has hired a real estate agent and is planning to move out for good.

"This has been a nightmare from Day 1," she said. "I'm about to have a nervous breakdown."

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