About 60 children, most of them American citizens, are being forced to move from a cluster of government-subsidized homes because their parents are undocumented immigrants and ineligible to live there.
Thirty families, nearly half of those who live in Cypress Farms — a neighborhood of farm-labor housing funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — have been served seven-day notices to vacate their homes or be taken to court for eviction proceedings.
For many of the families, Friday was their last day in the homes some have occupied for years.
Claudia Guzman, 42, a mother of four, said she and her husband were leaving their four-bedroom house, which they had lived in for a year, and taking their three boys — ages 13, 6 and 5 — to live in an apartment owned by her pastor's son next to her church. Guzman's adult daughter lives out of the house with her husband.
"Thank God they're three boys," she said. "They can all share a bed."
The family was forced to squeeze into the two-bedroom apartment because she and her husband, both from Honduras, are undocumented immigrants. In order to move into USDA housing, according to agency guidelines, one must be either a citizen or a legal alien.
But, Guzman and other residents said that when they moved in, nobody asked to see proof of citizenship or legal status. In fact, according to Guzman, the person she and her husband spoke with before moving in told them it didn't matter if they didn't have their "papers" because their children were Americans. They planted their signatures on the bottom of some forms and moved into their new home.
One of the forms, though, was an affidavit asserting their legal status.
Within the past few months, the Pasco County Housing Authority, which oversees Cypress Farms, conducted an audit of all the families living in the community and found others had done the same thing. Officials told every family in the development they'd have to come up with proof of citizenship or legal status — a birth certificate, green card or other applicable government paperwork — to continue living there. The 30 who couldn't received a notice to vacate.
Nancy Wesoff, the executive director of the Housing Authority, hung the responsibility for the situation around the necks of the families who moved in under false pretenses.
"Keep in mind, all these families signed forms," she said. "When you ask me how did this happen, families signed forms, signed federal documents, stating that they were eligible when they weren't."
The Housing Authority first learned something wasn't right in December when it sent a sample of Cypress Farms resident files to the USDA for review. The review was part of a long process of cleaning up the authority after decades of mismanagement, said David Lambert, chairman of its board of directors. The Department of Homeland Security alerted the USDA that one of those residents was using a Social Security number several other people around the country were also using, Lambert said. That's when the authority started the resident audit.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Whether the authority is culpable in any of this is unclear. Its investigation found 23 other families also signed up for housing using fraudulent Social Security numbers, Lambert said.
Wesoff said background, credit and landlord checks were supposed to be completed on all residents before they moved in, but the fake Social Security numbers raised red flags with Housing Authority officials only after Homeland Security tipped them off last year.
Wesoff also said Social Security numbers aren't enough to prove citizenship or legal alien status — that's where the birth certificate or green card would come in.
Neither Wesoff nor Lambert could say whether former Housing Authority officials asked applicants to see those documents, and both said they're focusing on moving forward. And that means cleaning house, Lambert said.
"We will continue to seek out anyone who has committed fraud and taken money from our agency, which we have to do by law," he said. "And what the taxpayers expect us to do."
The signed affidavits and fraudulent Social Security numbers could mean more trouble for these families than just a housing crisis. Lambert said the Housing Authority informed the Pasco County Sheriff's Office of the situation, and criminal charges could hurt the parents' chances of one day becoming legal residents, said Margarita Romo, a Dade City-based farmworkers advocate. Not only that, the USDA can try to reclaim the money it spent on rental assistance.
In the meantime, families scrambled this past week to find other places to live. Javier Alvarez, 36, who works as a roofer, was relocating his wife and four children to a mobile home in Dade City, he said in Spanish and broken English.
He paid $300 a month to live in his three-bedroom house in Cypress Farms. He said he'll pay $600 for the mobile home.
Another resident, Cesar Perez, 29, received his notice to vacate Friday. He'll have until March 11 to leave, or face court proceedings. He's unsure if he, his sister and his nephew will leave by then or stay through the eviction process.
"If we find somewhere to go, we'll leave," he said in Spanish, through a woman who translated. "It all depends."
Romo, who runs the local advocacy group Farmworkers Self Help Inc., said she knew families needed to leave and encouraged them to do so to avoid more trouble. She sought to buy them more time than a week to move.
The seven-day notice, though, is in line with Florida eviction statutes, said Tom DiFiore, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Services, which specializes in eviction law.
"All we were asking for was some compassion and some time," Romo said. "I just want to make sure the children are remembered, because nobody is considering the children."
Many of the kids, she said, will have to switch schools in the middle of testing season as their families move around.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @josh_solomon15.