On June 23, 2022, around 1:30 a.m., Gloria Francine Maxwell was jolted awake by a loud boom. Looking out her bedroom window, she saw flames shooting from the back of her St. Petersburg home.
She spent nearly 50 years transforming the unassuming bungalow in the Childs Park neighborhood into her own little oasis.
There was the marble tub and skylight she installed in the master bathroom. The stone accent wall and window seat her father built her. The avocado trees and pineapple plants she cultivated in her garden. She even painted the driveway pink.
“Blood, sweat and equity went into this house,” said Maxwell, 75. “That was my gold.”
She watched it all disappear in an instant, engulfed by the flames.
Maxwell’s home is still standing, but it’s uninhabitable. The property since has been cited several times by St. Petersburg Codes Compliance. This week, the Code Enforcement Board gave her 180 days to make repairs.
The city said it is has provided Maxwell with resources to help her correct code violations, but it must also address concerns from neighbors who have filed complaints.
If she can’t find a way to repair the damage, Maxwell fears she may lose what’s left of her dream home.
Maxwell’s story is the sixth installment of Housing Horror Stories, an occasional series exploring the trials and tribulations that Tampa Bay residents have faced navigating the local housing market.
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue couldn’t determine what caused the fire. But Maxwell said she brought in a private investigator who believes that her car may have burst into flames, which then spread to the house.
Maxwell lost her car, furniture, clothes and family heirlooms. Her dog and three cats died in the blaze.
The fire burned through the drywall in the back half of the house and scorched the roof. Nearly every room in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house has to be gutted.
Maxwell said one contractor estimated it would take about $60,000 to fix everything. On top of that, she still owes nearly $40,000 to a solar company that replaced her roof and installed solar panels just days before the fire.
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Insurance won’t help her. She didn’t have any. Maxwell said she lost her home insurance about three years ago after her provider told her they wouldn’t insure her unless she got a new roof. Now she will have to find a way to fund the repairs on her own.
When she received the first notice from the city in October of last year “it felt like a kick in the gut,” she said. “Instead of helping me, it felt like they were trying to hurt me.”
The initial citations flagged overgrowth and debris. Squatters had started jumping the fence and leaving trash. Maxwell said she wasn’t able to do anything about the mess for months while the private investigator examined the property.
She eventually cleaned up the yard and boarded up the windows to the home. Despite her efforts, Maxwell said that code citations have continued.
Most of the citations were related to the yard and have been resolved. But in May, Maxwell was cited for fire damage to the home and back gate, and in September she was cited for fire and roof damage.
Joe Waugh, director of codes compliance, said in an email that his department assigned a specialist from the neighborhood team to help Maxwell. The team gave her a dumpster to use free of charge, emptied and returned the dumpster multiple times and cleared vegetative overgrowth. They also attempted to install a temporary tarp on the roof but were unable to do so safely because the building has been so badly damaged.
The Code Enforcement Board heard her case at a hearing Wednesday. Maxwell was granted 180 days to correct violations before the board starts handing out fines.
Though she’s been trying to fix up the house little by little, her only source of income is Social Security, and that’s barely enough to cover her rent, she said.
She has tried getting assistance through Habitat for Humanity, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a city-run rehabilitation program, but everywhere she turned she was told they could not help.
Now she’s raising money through GoFundMe and applying for jobs as a last resort.
“I’m stretched so thin right now,” she said. “I feel like a senior should not have to struggle this hard to get help.”
She’s gotten a couple of offers to sell the house but said the money she’d receive isn’t enough to buy a new home.
Besides, “my history is here,” she said. It’s the place where she raised her son, started a small business and cared for her ailing parents. She had planned to spend the rest of her life there.
“I feel grateful to have a roof over my head, but I want to go home.”
If you have a housing horror story of your own, we want to hear about it. Fill out the form below for an opportunity to be featured in the series.