There are no homes at 2700 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Although the only buildings standing are a McDonald’s and a Chick-fil-A, 110 people have registered it as an address.
All of them are convicted sex offenders.
This hot spot for sexual criminals is one of several along Federal Highway in northeast Fort Lauderdale, one of the few slivers in the city where a registered sex offender or sexual predator — rapists, molesters, child porn addicts — can legally reside.
That will change soon. The city tentatively has agreed to relax its restrictive sex offender laws, opening up more of the city where offenders can legally live.
The current law leaves just 1.4 percent of Fort Lauderdale for legal residence. Sex offenders and the more dangerous sexual predators can’t live within 1,400 feet of a school bus stop, park, day care, playground or school.
The law is so restrictive, it’s not legally defensible, City Attorney Alain Boileau told commissioners Tuesday. One Broward County judge already has ruled against the city in a challenge.
“It makes it very difficult for our law enforcement to go out and enforce it with any meaningful punch,” Boileau said.
The city’s northeast is home to upscale neighborhoods, whose residents have grown concerned about homeless people in the area. Occasionally they see small encampments: clothes on an outdoor line behind a business, people sleeping, garbage strewn about.
As of this month, 201 sex offenders are registered as transients along the stretch of Federal Highway from Oakland Park Boulevard south to Northeast 26th Street, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Mary Peloquin, president of the Coral Ridge Association, said the issue first came to her attention in 2017, after a registered sex offender was accused of raping a woman just east of Federal Highway. She wondered about other sex offenders in the area and was dismayed at what she found on the state’s searchable database.
Peloquin noticed an increase in transients after a homeless camp in downtown Fort Lauderdale was emptied in November. She supports the relaxing of the law, to give people more housing options.
Peloquin said she found it strangely unfair that offenders “be given such a slim chance to get their feet back on the ground and start a good life.”
Commissioner Heather Moraitis, who represents and lives in the part of the city with the cluster of offenders, said the current law led to homelessness of sex offenders, a dangerous proposition.
“My goal isn’t necessarily to disperse them throughout the city as much as to get them into housing, whatever that may be,” Moraitis said. “I think that’s really the goal. I’m not saying I don’t want them in my backyard.”
Of the homeless sex offenders, nearly 80 percent of them are registered to Fort Lauderdale addresses, according to the Florida Action Committee. The city attracts more homeless people because of its easier access to food kitchens, the courthouse and mass transit, among other reasons. The Main Jail also is in Fort Lauderdale.
But Moraitis said none of the city-funded services to help homeless people, including shelters and a day respite center, can be used by convicted sex offenders. Federal law also bans them from subsidized housing and requires them to make early accommodations if they think they will need to use an emergency shelter.
The state Legislature’s research arm, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, points to residency restrictions as the biggest factor leading to an increase in offender homelessness.
Mayor Dean Trantalis said he didn’t want the city’s pending action to be misinterpreted. The city has no choice because its current law is unconstitutional, he said.
“We don’t want to open the door to sexual offenders, or predators thinking that Fort Lauderdale is a welcoming place,” Trantalis argued.