The spat over whether to ban rental houses in a DeLand neighborhood would be just another HOA dispute, except for one thing: All four of the rentals in Sugarberry Glen were occupied by black people.
According to a lawsuit filed Oct. 16 by the owners of three of those rental houses, there are 45 homes in the 3-year-old subdivision near DeLand High School.
In July, when members of the homeowners association board circulated petitions to ban rentals, the neighborhood had five black or mixed-race families. Four of those families were renters.
DeLand attorney Sherri Akin is representing Tonya and Andrew Bomba of DeLand, who bought their three houses as an investment, and have been renting them for about two years.
Akin said whether the HOA board intended to discriminate against people of color, their action does so. She referenced an HOA-board letter to residents that suggests renters might harm property values.
“Restriction on rentals due to possible decreases in property value is a very concerning statement. It harks back to a time when these types of statements were used to freeze out minorities.”
The Bombas’ lawsuit asks the court to reverse an amendment to the HOA covenants that was recorded Aug. 8.
“I'm outraged and feel horrible for my tenants,” Tonya Bomba said.
Since the rental ban was proposed, two of the Bombas’ three tenant families have moved.
Curtiss McNair and his wife moved to Tampa, where he was offered a job as a medical-lab director.
“What made us pull the trigger was the recent developments over at Parkmore, with the discriminatory policies of the HOA,” McNair said.
The McNairs had been living in Sugarberry Glen, which was formerly called Parkmore Manor, since 2016.
In addition to the amendment’s effect on black families in Sugarberry Glen, the couple have problems with how the change was sold to residents in the subdivision. They object to a letter from the HOA board that suggests renters tend to be transient and don’t take care of their properties as well as homeowners. They also question whether the HOA board’s actions followed the law.
Tonya Bomba said she understands that residents of a subdivision might unite to ban rental properties, if there were problems.
“If we had horrible tenants, if we had complaints, if we had violations, if we had the cops being called, if the homes were in disrepair, I would completely understand and probably would have sold,” Tonya Bomba said. “Our tenants are all professionals who pay top dollar to rent, at the time, a beautiful, brand-new home in a nice community! When you remove everything, there is only one logical conclusion that one can make.”
HOA Secretary Debby Gervais declined to talk with The Beacon because of the pending lawsuit.
“I’ll have to refer you to the attorney,” she said.
The HOA attorney, Carlos R. Arias of Altamonte Springs, didn’t respond to a message left by the newspaper.
Ertha McPherson has rented from the Bombas since 2016. She’s a trauma nurse, her husband is a chef, and the couple have 18-month-old twins.
“I was thinking I could maybe, in a couple of years, buy this house. At this point, I don’t know if I can. I don’t want to be in a neighborhood that’s against African-Americans,” McPherson told The Beacon.
McPherson said, up to now, she hasn’t felt any discrimination from her neighbors. She recalled one of the HOA board members trick-or-treating with her children.
“If it wasn’t for this, I would live here forever,” McPherson said. “I don’t want to uproot my children; this is where they have grown up; this is their home.”
She said she is hopeful the Bombas will be successful in their legal challenge, but wants to be sure her family is safe and comfortable.
“I don’t want to be hated, or be the enemy of anyone,” McPherson said.
Until recently, John Cordes was president of the HOA board, which has fallen apart since the rental ban was adopted and board members learned of the Bombas’ lawsuit.
“I’m going on 73,” Cordes said. “I don’t need the aggravation. I don’t even go to meetings anymore. I’ve washed my hands of it.”
Cordes said most of the HOA board members except him and Gervais resigned after an unsuccessful attempt to oust Gervais. Then he resigned, too.
In light of the lawsuit, Cordes wouldn’t comment on the rental ban. He’s planning to move out of Sugarberry Glen.
“I have my house up for sale. This was not the only reason, but it’s a contributing factor,” Cordes said.
The Bombas’ lawsuit mentions the possibility of racial discrimination in only one point among dozens. Primarily, it asks the court to consider whether the HOA amendment was adopted properly and whether it is a reasonable restriction on property use.
Before the change was made, Akin noted, rentals were already restricted: They could not be for terms shorter than seven months, and homes could not be rented more than twice a year.
Why the HOA wanted to restrict rentals even further is a mystery, she said.
“The reason this looks bad is because rentals weren’t a question,” Akin said. “That leaves motivation up to question. You can draw any conclusions you want, and I don’t accuse anyone.”
She noted the minutes of the HOA meetings don’t reflect any thorough discussion on the part of the board about problems with rentals or possible ways to address those problems.
“Even if there is a legitimate motive, we don’t know what it is,” Akin said.