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Miami Herald - 12/06/2014

Tenants of Miami ‘slums’ seek better life

By Nadege Green and David Smiley

In a faded blue three-story apartment building in Liberty City, tenants place buckets on their beds and dressers to catch the deluge of water that falls inside when it rains.

Sometimes the ceilings don’t hold up. Early this year, inside a first-floor apartment, the bedroom ceiling fell on a sleeping 16-year-old and dislocated his neck.

One block north in another complex, inspectors say roaches inundate cabinets and that gaping holes decorate walls and ceilings. Farther south in Overtown, swaths of mold grow on apartment walls in two complexes at Northwest First Court and 17th Street.

The buildings are among nine properties in some of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods and are tied to a couple accused of running slums across the city and elsewhere in the country. Sewage leaks, crumbling staircases, and the flouting of basic local and state licenses have drummed up scores of violations, millions of dollars in fines and, now, a city lawsuit.

But so far, none of that has forced Denise or Abraham Vaknin — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story — to address the squalor in which their cash-strapped tenants say they are forced to live. Gaynesha Williams said she complained for months about her son’s leaky room before chunks of his ceiling rained down on him. Men came to patch the hole, but the next time it rained, water seeped through, and so her son sleeps on the couch, afraid he’ll be hurt again.

"I feel like I’m being treated like I’m an animal," she said.

City and county officials alike say they’re doing what they can to improve the situation. But there’s disagreement about who bears the burden in extreme cases when a landlord is content to rack up fines and ignore government orders. Meanwhile, the Vaknins live in a sprawling $2.4 million home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and continue to rake in rents from the working poor, who say they have nowhere else to go.

The Vaknins owe the city of Miami $2.4 million in unpaid code, building and fire violations through six apartment management companies. None of Vaknin’s companies listed to the buildings has a required, valid state license to operate an apartment building. Some lack a basic certificate of use and business tax receipt.

A recent state inspection found mold-like substances in most of the apartments at 6040 NW 12th Ave., where Williams lives. The report also documented live roaches, doors in disrepair and damaged electrical wires.

Required fire suppression equipment is nonexistent at many of the properties, according to city records.

"All these slumlords around here, it don’t make no damn sense," said Joyce McGill, who pays the $500 monthly rent at the 6040 building with her income from a part-time job at a Checkers restaurant.

At night, McGill props a kitchen chair against her Liberty City apartment door, which opens with merely a strong shove no matter how many of the mismatched gold and silver padlocks are closed, because the door frame is falling apart.

McGill, 56, knows her small black chair with peeling paint is an inadequate safety measure, but it gives her some peace of mind before she goes to bed in one of Miami’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

In this three-story apartment complex, there are more egregious examples of poor living conditions. In one apartment with three children, there’s no running water in the bathroom. Mushrooms sprout out of moist walls in another one. Swaths of black, mold-like substances take over bathrooms in almost all the apartments.

Williams, whose son was injured by falling drywall, says brown fecal matter seeps from some ceilings when upstairs tenants flush the toilet.

"Something needs to be done, and I won’t stop fighting," says Williams, who attends eviction hearings for other tenants. "I’m not going to stop fighting."

Williams and other tenants have found help from Legal Services of Greater Miami. Tenants say that when they complain about their living conditions, the landlord targets them for evictions.

The city of Miami has filed its own suit, seeking $4 million from the Vaknin corporations and an injunction to stop the couple from taking on new tenants until improvements are made. In the suit, the city mentions "there is no legal mechanism to compel" the Vaknins to repair their properties.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado says the suit is the city’s best recourse at the moment because demolishing the buildings doesn’t help the tenants find a suitable place to live.

"I just don’t know what else we can do," Regalado said. "The only remedy is suing these people and having the courts declare them in default if they don’t fix the building."

It wasn’t so long ago, however, that landlords accused of running slums were aggressively targeted, hauled into Miami courtrooms and even thrown in jail. Years ago, Miami-Dade County had a team of housing enforcement officers to enforce a minimum housing code, including in the city of Miami. Those officers worked with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, which filed civil actions and sometimes criminal charges against slumlords.

James Hall, who during the 1980s was a senior county housing inspector, said helping poor tenants was a priority following the 1980 McDuffie riots. In his role, he worked with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, which ran a multi-agency task force to crack down on slums. Even the county was blasted in 1986, when a grand jury report hammered the county's housing department over its failure to maintain its public housing and for itself being "one of the the largest slumlords in Dade County."

"We should not tolerate squalor and blight. It’s inexcusable," said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who herself went after slumlords while serving as the chief assistant under then-state attorney Janet Reno.

Some landlords were charged and put in jail under violations of the county’s minimum housing code, which still exists today. In one case, the landlord of an Overtown complex was jailed after trying to evict tenants who withheld their rent in order to force him to improve the building. They ultimately formed a co-op and bought the building with the help of a loan from the city of Miami, but were unable to maintain the structure any better than their landlord, so it was condemned by the city.

The power to arrest absentee landlords still exists today, although the county stopped enforcing apartment maintenance issues in the city of Miami boundaries after a merger four years ago. Ricardo Roig, Miami-Dade’s Building Code Support division director, said putting landlords in jail works better only in theory because owners care far more about their bottom line than their criminal record.

"Criminal court is not for everything and we learned that very early in the stages," he said, adding that the county’s housing standards laws have become outdated and have been duplicated anyway by local building codes and state laws. "Ultimately our goal is compliance to fix whatever our violation is."

Hall, however, said the truth is the priorities have changed. He said his team of inspectors once went after landlords even if they were out of state, but were eventually "dismantled" when their efforts became inconvenient, though he declined to elaborate.

"Now it’s about money. Everything is money," said Hall, who retired in 2004. "It’s not about the conditions in which people live every day, which is sad."

Nathaniel Wilcox, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE, has been meeting with tenants at 6040 NW 12th Ave. and city officials about the complex’s conditions. He says the frustrated tenants have few remedies except to move. And then new tenants replace them in the same leaky, rodent-infested spaces.

"If they put dogs in conditions like that the people would be arrested. You know if you mistreat a dog, if you mistreat a cat, the person that does that will be arrested," he said. "But you can mistreat a human being and the landlord, he’s going to get away with it."

Many landlords will correct their problems after being cited, fined and brought before civil boards for quasi-judicial hearings. But for those who refuse to comply, tenants can be stuck in a tangle of bureaucracy. Apartment building maintenance issues are the jurisdiction of the city, county and several state agencies, several of which have asked why the other isn’t being more aggressive in the case of the Vaknin buildings.

That’s left tenants to struggle with problems for months and years. In the fall of 2013, a Miami Herald story about the condition of several of the Vaknin’s buildings detailed how a sewer pipe at the building at 1341 NW 60th St. had busted repeatedly, flooding the courtyard and neighbors’ properties with foul fluids.

"Every time I pay rent, there is something else wrong with the building," said Maria Hernandez, who paid $500 a month.

In Houston, when the Vaknins racked up more than $380,000 in fines, one councilwoman took it upon herself to help move families out of the deplorable conditions. Some believe Miami should be doing more for its tenants.

But Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who represents Liberty City and Overtown, says the city is doing its part by taking Vaknin to court. Tenants living in slumlord apartments also have a responsibility, he said.

"Every year they’re signing a lease to live in that same condition," he said. "It’s a mistake to believe its the city’s fault in handling those issues."

Wayne Caroll is trying to save money to move out. His apartment is infested with roaches. Other critters frequent freely through broken window screens. The bugs, he says, are the least of his worries in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his three nephews.

The doorless bathroom has no running water or functioning toilet. They shower at Caroll’s mother’s home two blocks away.

Caroll instructs his nephews to relieve themselves on a littered stretch of grass behind their apartment, where he also goes when nature calls.

Six-year-old T.J. admits he ignores his uncle’s rule sometimes and uses the toilet.

"All we do is go in the bathroom and use it and we come out without flushing it," he said.

Carroll doesn’t like living there. He’s saving money from construction and labor jobs to find a new apartment.

"It hurts like hell because I have my nephews and them here," he says. "I’m just fed [up] with the bulls--t."