April 23, 2024
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By Rebecca Liebson

Gloria Francine Maxwell, in the early hours of June 23rd, 2022 was startled awake when a large boom shook her. She saw fires coming out of the rear of her St. Petersburg house when she looked through her bedroom window.

It took her nearly 50 years to transform the bungalow, located in Childs Park’s neighborhood, into her little paradise.

The marble bathtub and skylight that she added to the bathroom. Her father made her the stone accent wall, window seat and her dad built her the window. She cultivated avocado and pineapple trees in her backyard. Even the driveway was painted pink.

Maxwell said, “Blood and sweat, as well as equity, went into building this home.” Maxwell is 75. That was my gold.

The flames engulfed her in an instant.

Maxwell’s house is still there, but uninhabitable. St. Petersburg Codes Compliance has cited the property several times since. The Code Enforcement Board has given her 180 days this week to fix the property.

Maxwell was given resources by the city to correct her code violations. However, it also needs to address complaints from nearby residents.

Maxwell is afraid that if she doesn’t fix the damages, she will lose her home.

Maxwell’s story is part of Housing Horror Stories. This series explores the struggles and trials that Tampa Bay locals have had to face when navigating their housing market.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue was unable to determine the cause of the fire. Maxwell told us that she hired a private investigator, who thinks her car might have exploded into flames and spread the fire to Maxwell’s house.

Maxwell’s car, clothing, and furniture were all destroyed in the fire. In the fire, Maxwell’s dog and 3 cats perished.

The roof was scorched and the fire had destroyed the walls. The three-bedroom house with two bathrooms has been gutted.

Maxwell stated that one contractor had estimated the cost of fixing everything at about $60,000. She also owes almost $40,000 to the solar company who replaced her roof and put in solar panels days before it caught fire.

She can’t get insurance. She did not have insurance. Maxwell lost her insurance three years ago when her insurer told her that they would not insure her until she had a roof replaced. She will now have to pay for the roof repairs herself.

She said that when she first received the notice in October last year, “it was like getting a punch in the stomach.” It felt as if they wanted to harm me rather than help me.

Initial citations cited overgrowth and debris. The squatters began jumping over the fence to leave trash. Maxwell claimed that she was unable to clean up the mess while the private investigator inspected the property for several months.

She cleaned the yard up and boarded the windows of the house. Maxwell says that despite her efforts code violations have continued.

The majority of the citations related to yard work and were resolved. Maxwell, however, was cited in May for damage caused by fire to her home, back gate and the roof. In September, she was also cited due to fire damage.

Joe Waugh (director of codes compliance) said that in an email, his department had assigned a neighborhood specialist to Maxwell. They gave Maxwell a dumpster for free, returned it multiple times after emptying and cleaned up the vegetation. The team also tried to put a temporary roof tarp up but was unable to safely do it because of the damage to the building.

On Wednesday, the Code Enforcement Board heard Maxwell’s case. Maxwell has 180 days to fix the violations.

She said that even though she has been working to improve the home, she only receives Social Security benefits, which barely cover rent.

Her attempts to get help from Habitat for Humanity and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as a rehabilitation program run by her city, were all unsuccessful.

She is now raising money via GoFundMe, and as a final resort she has applied for jobs.

She said, “I feel so stretched right now.” I don’t think a senior citizen should have to fight so hard for help.

She has received a few offers for her house, but the amount of money that she would receive wouldn’t be enough to purchase a new one.

She added, “my past is right here.” She raised her son there, opened a small-business and took care of her parents. She planned to live there for the rest of her days.

“I am grateful for the roof above my head but I would like to return home.”

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