OKEECHOBEE — In a tale reminiscent of both the Good Samaritan and David and Goliath, a local woman helped her neighbor save his home. Jim Challancin lives in a mobile home park out by the lake and has lived there for many years. His residence consists of a small mobile home attached to a structure.
Challancin’s troubles began after Hurricane Irma came through and damaged his home. Challancin tried many different avenues to get his home repaired, all to no avail, but then his friend and former neighbor stepped in to help. Tonya Ford, who has worked at Home Depot for many years, hates to see the “little guys” of this world taken advantage of, and she was determined to get help for her friend.
They applied for help from FEMA when the damage first occurred, but the claim was denied. They appealed that decision three times. This prompted the application with Rebuild Florida. Rebuild Florida denied his claim several times, but they continued to appeal the decisions all the way up to Tallahassee.
Rebuild Florida is a program run by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its purpose is to help families rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irma. The duo filed paperwork with Rebuild Florida in May 2019.
Unfortunately, Challancin’s claim was denied in December of 2019. The reason given was that Challancin’s home was not an eligible structure, with Rebuild Florida claiming his home was a camper trailer rather than a mobile home. Camper trailers are explicitly excluded from coverage. Ford and Challancin decided to contest this decision and asked for a formal hearing.
Their argument included a claim that Challancin’s home not only consisted of the 32-foot Corsair but also included other structural elements. Additional rooms have been added as well as an attached carport. The attached buildings made up more than 50% of the entire residence.
In a recommended order handed down by Judge John G. Van Laningham in December of 2020, Challancin was victorious. Van Laningham said, “In arguing over whether the Corsair is a mobile home or a camper trailer, the parties have misidentified the ultimate issue as being whether the Corsair is an eligible structure. The real issue, which the parties have overlooked, is whether the RESIDENCE is an eligible structure.” He agreed with Ford and Challancin that the residence was not the stand alone vehicle, but in fact, “is a single, integrated, standalone building which incorporates the Corsair as a structural element.”
In his closing, the judge said the purpose of the program was to provide housing assistance to those affected by Hurricane Irma in 2017. “By all appearances, Challancin is precisely the sort of homeowner whom the program was designed to assist.”
Although the judge’s recommendation was in his favor, Challancin still had to wait for a final decision by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
On Jan. 28, Challancin received a phone call from the DEO attorney informing him they were ready to settle. They said they will come do a damage assessment and flood zone evaluation. They feel the damage to his residence most likely exceeds $15,000 and since the residence is older than 1990, it will be replaced with a new park model. With permission from the park owner, they will demolish his existing structure and replace it with the new trailer. Ford and Challancin are requesting the DEO pay for storage and lodging while the transition takes place. They would also like the new trailer to accommodate a disabled person.
Ford said, “We are still in shock and so glad justice was served after being told no so many times.”
When asked how she got involved, Ford said she has known Challancin for about five years. She met him at Home Depot and then realized they were neighbors. Ford’s mother managed a law office in Okeechobee for about 25 years, and she taught Ford how to research. Challancin is not the first person Ford has helped with a legal issue. “Research is the key,” she said. “Even a judge will say he has to do research on things.”
Ford applied at Home Depot more than 12 years ago and has been there ever since. She is happy working for Home Depot and helping people on the side. “I always thought if I did it for a living, it would be too stressful. I wouldn’t be able to shut it off at night. When I leave Home depot, I can shut it off.”
Challancin was a mechanic for 32 years before trouble with his hips and a resulting hip replacement took him out of the workforce. In addition, he has had five heart attacks.
Challancin said he is happy he won, even more for Ford’s sake than his own, because she has worked so hard to help him.