South Florida Landlord Bucks Trend, Offers Housing to Sex Offenders
Laws that restrict where sex offenders can live when they are released from prison leave many homeless, but one south Florida apartment manager is providing housing opportunities by leasing apartments to offenders on liberal terms.
“I just believe that everybody deserves a second chance,” said Pamela Eaton, the manager of Fairfield Apartments in south Fort Myers. She indicated her goal is to help sex offenders become independent and productive citizens, “because everybody makes mistakes.” She considers post-release housing one step in that direction.
Restrictive ordinances such as those in Miami-Dade County have made the area virtually off limits to sex offenders, which in the past forced some to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.13; Dec. 2009, p.14; July 2009, p.36; June 2008, p.1].
Residency restrictions in Lee County, which are the same as under Florida state law, prohibit sex offenders convicted of crimes involving minors from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, parks or other places where children congregate – leaving few housing options available. Further, many landlords are reluctant to rent to sex offenders, and because they have trouble finding jobs, some are unable to pay rent.
“Other than a small area in Lehigh Acres where there are large, desolate areas that are not within 1,000 feet of where children congregate, which is in the eastern part of the county and away from most jobs, the only option is [Fairfield Apartments] or the woods,” said Pam Donelson with the Florida Department of Corrections. “There are a few other very small pockets of desolate residential areas that comply, but they are few and far between.”
Pamela Eaton recruits in prisons throughout Florida by offering housing for sex offenders. She often waives the $200 security deposit for those just released from prison and allows them to owe her the first month’s $450 rent. Most sleep three-to-four in an apartment, sharing a common kitchen and bathroom. Each renter has his own room furnished with a twin bed, TV, dresser and night stand.
Eaton’s rental policy has generated hostility from her neighbors, though that doesn’t sway her. Fairfield Apartments is located in a quiet neighborhood where children play and ride bicycles. One resident, Julie Evans, was not afraid to express how she feels about living next to registered sex offenders.
“I got a gun,” she said. “And I will use that gun.”
But for former prisoners like Clyde Lother, who served 17 years for lewd and indecent assault against a child, Fairfield Apartments saves them from homelessness and possible rearrest for failing to have a permanent address. “I wrote letters [from prison] to places telling them I have no money, I have no income,” Luther said. “I wrote letter after letter after letter, place after place after place.” He said Eaton was the only one who responded.
She screens potential sex offender tenants to ensure they are non-violent and sincere about changing their lives. Sex offenders, Eaton said, are some of her best renters. “They’re really wanting to do right,” she stated. “They really are.”
In mid-September 2012, there were 22 registered sex offenders housed at the Fairfield Apartments complex and a dozen in surrounding homes.
Some were forced to move, however, when one of the five buildings in the complex was sold to a Canadian couple; the new owners immediately canceled the month-to-month leases of five sex offender tenants.
“We have no place to go,” said Steve Bills, one of the renters forced to move. “I mean, this is the only place.”
Those who were displaced found housing in the four remaining buildings that Eaton still manages. “I’m here for them,” she said. “I’m not just going to let them go without.” However, she has only so much space for sex offenders, forcing her to turn away as many as 10 hopeful applicants each week.
As of July 2014, the Florida sex offender registry listed 18 sex offenders living at Fairfield Apartments. There are over 23,000 registered sex offenders in the state.
Sources: www.marcoislandflorida.com, http://offender.fdle.state.fl.us, www.northescambia.com
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