With a baby on her hip, Yolanda Vasquez shyly approached the podium at the Sept. 3 city commission meeting.
“I live in District 1, in Royal Poinciana,” Vasquez said. “There is a real lack of safety. There’s not enough lighting, and you know what’s hanging around. Houses have been invaded, there are hit and runs, robberies and drug dealing. A lot of it has to do with insufficient lighting. Keep us in mind.”
Her modest proposal was greeted by applause from residents in the audience and promises from the dais. She later said it was too dark on her street to see the license plates of suspicious cars in order to report them.
“A section of our city has been denied the basic right to a safe infrastructure, fire hydrants, a street,” said Mayor Pam Triolo to Vasquez, a member of the Royal Poinciana neighborhood enhancement team. “This is a crime-ridden area that has no lighting whatsoever.”
Some of the lighting was damaged by hurricanes six or more years ago, Vasquez told the commissioners.
Royal Poinciana’s boundaries are Dixie Highway, Lucerne Avenue, Interstate 95 and Sixth Avenue North. It has ramshackle houses with crime in and around them. Some residents are afraid to speak up, resident Marshall Pass told commissioners. He said he freely walked into abandoned homes and found evidence of unlawful activity.
Commissioners are considering a bond issue to improve roads, street lights, fire hydrants and other basic needs. About $100 million worth of projects have been identified. But a bond issue is months down the road.
In the meantime, commissioners passed ordinances that allow the city to board up abandoned houses, saddle their owners with liens and ultimately take over ownership of such houses. The ordinances go into effect shortly, but the city staff has to collect bids from contractors who would do the boarding-up. About $200,000 has been moved into an account to start the process.
“We’re working on it,” Triolo told Vasquez.
At its Tuesday meeting, the city commission is scheduled to authorize $450,000 in improvements on Seventh Avenue South Street between South A and South F streets. The improvements, which include sidewalks and swales, are described as a complete makeover of that section of road, which is used by children on their way to school.
And, until money rolls in for large-scale improvements to streets and lights, there are volunteer initiatives.
Commissioner Andy Amoroso led a group of about 50 volunteers on a three-hour neighborhood cleanup in the Royal Poinciana neighborhood on Sept. 7. Another is planned for Oct. 12.
The group cleaned empty lots and alleys and mowed weeds.
The cleanups provide a take-back-the-streets camaraderie, a street-level view of a neighborhood’s needs and a chance to hand out fliers in English, Spanish and Creole with basic information that new residents might need, like when garbage is picked up.
Responsibility for cleaning up trouble spots falls to the code enforcement department. A highly critical report in May by the city’s internal auditor listed myriad problems, including uncollected fines, some greater than the value of the properties; insufficiently trained employees; and a lack of field supervisors in the department.
Lake Worth took a beating in the economic downturn, with about 2,000 properties — 15 percent of the city’s building stock — either formally foreclosed upon or soon to be. In May, the month of the internal auditor’s report, there were more than 900 open cases, to be handled by 11 employees.
“We’ve identified a lot of different problems. We need a new approach and maybe some new bodies,” Amoroso said. “We have 2,000 homes in preforeclosure, and some of them we don’t even know who owns them.”
Despite its troubles, Royal Poinciana is also responsible for a miniboom in real estate values. Lake Worth’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which received a $23 million federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant, participated in a building program that accounted for a 12 percent increase in real estate values in its area, compared to a citywide increase of 4 percent. The residents of those houses, built with assistance from Habitat for Humanity and Adopt a Family, are owners, not renters.
ROYAL POINCIANA CLEANUP
The Oct. 12 cleanup in the Royal Poinciana neighborhood will run from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sneakers and long pants are recommended. Gloves will be provided. For more information, call the Lake Worth Community Redevelopment Agency at 561-493-2550.