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A Homeowner's Cry For Help For A Historic Gables Home

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) - It sits behind a canopy of tropical flowers and and neighbors stop by but not to offer compliments.

"Oh, it is so embarrassing. People come and want to know what happened to the house," said Francina Berry.

Berry, 78, cares about what she describes as her now rotting house as if it were a member of her family. To her it is.

Five generations of her loved ones lived in it. Many, including herself, were born in the master bedroom. Lives came and went.

"My mom died here. It is very special to the family members," she reflects while staring into that auspicious room.

Click here to watch Michele Gillen's report. 

And it's supposed to be special not just to the family but to the nation. Berry's home is on the National Registry of Historic Places, one in a cluster of unique historic homes and what remains of a vanishing fingerprint of Bahamian settlers who helped build Coral Gables.

What's shocking is that the home, according to the family, is falling apart allegedly because of a taxpayer funded rehab; a government initiative that seemingly went terribly wrong.

"Was this treasure of a home treated with respect it deserved," asked CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen of officials at Coral Gables City Hall.

"Oh, it's terrible. It's so upsetting. On every level it's upsetting," shared Dona Spain, Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Coral Gables.

"This house was not rotting. We had good old pine wood and they took all of the good woods and replaced it with, I call it tissue paper," saod Berry.

The foundation for this nightmare was laid eight years ago when hundreds of thousands of dollars in Miami-Dade grant monies were offered up and then directed to improve the homes making up the Gables only historic landmark district. The project was completed in 2007. By 2009, according to Berry, the house was deteriorating.

"We've been after them since then. They keep having meetings and this one says it is not their fault and the other says it is not their fault," said Berry.

Meanwhile, all the code violations were piling up.

"We never gave up because the whole situation is not right. You approved the shoddy work - you the city of Coral Gables and then you place code violations on the property and then drag us into court," said Berry's niece, Vallare Gibson.

Gibson has spent years trying to fight "City Hall," both city and county government, along with private contractors involved, trying to find a solution to "stop the rot" and the code violations. All the while her aunt worried about her safety living in a house where she fears the floors and ceiling might fall through.

"I can't continue to live like this," said Berry.

Hoping to find help or answers they turned to CBS4.

First stop for the news team was the office of the City Attorney for Coral Gables.

"This is a true historic part of our city and I took a look at the photos today of the house and I want to start by saying it is terrible," said Craig Leen.

The news team began a review of a dizzying paper trail of documents that spread over eight years.

Gillen called officials from the City of Coral Gables, Miami-Dade County, departments of Historic Preservation, Public Housing, Code along with the private contractor and the local housing association. All somehow involved in releasing the funds, choosing contractors and architects and overseeing the project.

"I know they are all passing the buck," said Berry.

Then a breakthrough. Good news on the news teams return visit to City Hall. According to the Leen, "The priority should be fixing the house."

"Yes! We are going to fix the house. Both the city and the county have approved a program which will allow money to be put into houses in the McFarland homestead historic district which are in disrepair. When someone puts their trust in the government and the government agrees to do something and then it falls apart, or it doesn't work, it's a real tragedy," said Leen.

Gillen delivered the news to the Berry family including the niece who had never stopped writing, appealing and trying to secure a solution. They applauded the step of the Coral Gables City commission of passing a resolution that they say would insure the fix up. Asked if they had hope that finally a solution would be forthcoming, Gibsson said "Yes I do, because Michele Gillen is on the case."

Gillen asked the city attorney when the dollars and new contruction plan would unfold.

"We believe it can be done this year," saoid Leen.

The family also expressed concern about the multiple code violations and fines that have been wracking up while the house continued to rot. According to Leen, all were stayed. He said he doesn't think it was fair for them to be levied when government shared responsibility in a poor rehab job.

"Thank you," said Berry.

"We care about her. We want her to know that. We care about her and want to make it right," said Leen.

Is the city confident that the next go round will be different? Historic Preservation officer Dona Spain was confident.

"Oh. The project is going to be overseen by my department and I can guarantee you we will be out there all the time," said Spain.

Figuring out what happened in the past and who might be held responsible does not seem to be an easy task even though Leen belives some party or parties need to be.

"The facts speak for themselves. There is a whole in the person's house. The wood is deteriorating. Something wrong happened there. Public funds were used in a wrong way," added Leen.

While no one seems quite sure on how to figure out how that happened, the focus is now on the future.

"This is the top priority of the city, the top priority of the city commission, the top priority of our preservation officer and the top priority of mine," said Leen.


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