Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld
Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld (Melanie Bell)

Fort Lauderdale has resisted eliminating a roadblock to housing for homeless people coming off the streets in a historic district next to the Josephine Leiser Opera Center.

Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld conducted an evidentiary hearing Tuesday to consider a petition for declaratory relief filed by the project’s sponsor, Henderson Behavioral Health Inc., which provides mental health services and housing to at-risk populations.

Henderson applied for a $1.8 million grant from the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which received money under the national mortgage settlement with major lenders.

Since late October, Henderson has been trying to get city approval, which is needed to get the grant money and complete the real estate purchase.

However, the city is afraid the property would be used as a halfway house or something similar.

Michael W. Moskowitz, Henderson’s attorney, told Streitfeld the city’s position is based on a misconception and it’s stonewalling to kill the application by forcing Henderson to miss an April 9 application deadline.

Streitfeld told Moskowitz, managing partner of Moskowitz, Mandell, Salim & Simowitz in Fort Lauderdale, that he toured the location at 247 SW Third Ave. between the Museum of Discovery & Science and the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.

He asked Moskowitz why Henderson hadn’t sought out a less expensive location where it could secure more units.

Moskowitz said the state grant program allows a maximum of 15 units. He said several locations were considered, but the Riverbend Apartments site scored highest because of access to public transportation and other services.

The crux of the issue is whether the application involves a project that meets the legal definition of a social services residential facility, a city zoning designation barred in a historic district.

The city is presented with two challenges, Moskowitz said.

First, Henderson assured the city that no onsite treatment would take place. A case manager would visit the site and encourage treatment, but treatment wouldn’t be required to obtain a lease, and residents do not have to be Henderson clients, he said.

Second, the city already signed off on another project under the same program involving the same zoning issue.

The city’s attorney told the judge the case management aspect of the Henderson program, as described in the application, made the city more inclined to object.

Moskowitz argued the extent of the services of the case manager—limited to providing information and facilitating social services—was no more than what any concierge would do for a resident of a beachfront condominium tower.

Streitfeld asked if the City Commission could take up the issue Tuesday afternoon to beat the deadline but was told public notice requirements would keep the commission from considering it until April 15.

Moskowitz suggested Streitfeld enter a declaratory order with conditions on the property use.