WESLEY CHAPEL — What little light Monique Zimmerman-Stein's eyes once saw is gone now. But she has bigger problems than being blind.
Zimmerman-Stein, who was featured last year in a St. Petersburg Times series about people whose health care benefits don't cover their bills, learned this week that she and her family are being evicted from the home they rent in the Watergrass subdivision.
The family has lived for years with financial stress and strain. Zimmerman-Stein, 49, and her two youngest daughters have Stickler's syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause vision loss, cleft palates and severe joint problems. Zimmerman-Stein's vision has deteriorated through her life. Her last surgery was in February — a corneal transplant that failed. Now she sees nothing, and the same thing is happening to her 14-year-old daughter.
Even though the family has health insurance through Gary Stein's job with Hillsborough County, the portion of the bills that isn't covered left them buried in debt.
But they had always paid their $1,350 rent on time.
Their house is owned by four investors who live in New York, though one woman could not be located by bank officials. They bought it in 2006 for $274,000.
Zimmerman-Stein paid rent to a property management company, which was also responsible for handling repairs.
Problems first cropped up this summer: broken windows, cracks in walls, the refrigerator stopped working.
Zimmerman-Stein said they were always told to pay the rent and then a repair would be scheduled.
But nothing got fixed. The family replaced all the appliances themselves, she said, even though the lease says the landlord is responsible.
So for the past three months, they have paid $135 — 10 percent of the total rent. Their intent: to "force the situation into court."
They planned to show a judge their history of on-time rent payments and the unfixed problems in the house. Instead, they got an eviction notice.
John McMillan, the Tampa attorney who filed the case for the homeowners, said that if Zimmerman-Stein and her husband wanted to fight the eviction, they had to deposit the amount due with the clerk of the court, and then a judge would determine who got what in a hearing.
"A tenant is not going to string it out without putting the money into the court registry," McMillan said.
County Judge Robert Cole entered an eviction judgment on Monday. Zimmerman-Stein and her family might have to leave as soon as next week.
But they plan to fight it. They had even filed a required motion to determine the amount they owed. Zimmerman-Stein said they had the rent money in their bank account, but they refused to pay on principle.
"We're the ones that are trying to take care of the house," she said.
By depositing their $135 payment for the last three months, Zimmerman-Stein said the landlords showed a pattern of accepting that amount. Therefore, she said, that should be the new monthly rent.
Not so, said McMillan.
"If a landlord was bound by that once he took it, then landlords would never work with tenants," he said.
What angers Zimmerman-Stein the most is that as she faces eviction, the home is tangled in a foreclosure lawsuit. According to court records, the owners stopped paying the mortgage in February 2009.
"We're the ones who have paid the rent on time and they're the ones who have not paid the mortgage," she said.
In the meantime, she is trying to keep her family going. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post, which picked up the Times story last year about the family's mountain of medical expenses. That led to an outpouring from readers who donated $30,000 to Zimmerman-Stein and her family.
It all went to medical bills.
"I cannot thank people (enough) for giving us a year of not having to fight with the doctor's offices, not having to be embarrassed," she said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.