Politicians say Miami ‘slums’ prove need for new laws

David Smiley
Miami Herald 
January 23, 2016

Leaning on a car outside the Liberty City apartment where he once lived — ground zero for Miami’s modern-day battles with negligent landlords — Dwayne Riggins looks at his old home and sees little improvement.

“Same old rickety building,” he said.

There’s a new coat of red paint on concrete stairs. Violations cited months ago by state inspectors have finally been resolved. And while plywood still covers several doors and windows, some previously uninhabitable apartments have been repaired and reopened to new tenants.

At least $118,000 have been spent on repairs, operations, maintenance and insurance at 6040 NW 12th Ave. and at eight other run-down Liberty City and Overtown apartment buildings owned by the same New Jersey couple since a judge appointed a third-party receiver this summer to manage the properties. Court records show thousands have been spent targeting pest infestations, illegally wired electric rooms, structural issues and shoddy plumbing.

But years of neglect have left behind a to-do list too expensive to address with only the meager rent generated by the buildings. Even after the city of Miami prevailed in court against landlords Abraham and Denise Vaknin — and after seven months of efforts by new management — tenants, attorneys and advocates agree there is still a lot of work left to do before the roughly 100 individuals and families residing in these buildings have a suitable place to live.

“The receiver has done what she can do and the courts have done what they can do. But that's not going to be enough to sustain long-term changes,” said Alana Greer, a Community Justice Project attorney representing low-income tenants at the 6040 building, where tenants in two units say their ceilings once buckled above their sleeping children. “It’s a business model to basically let these places run down.”

Some believe the solution lies in new laws.

Prompted by what they saw at Vaknins’ properties, particularly the 6040 building, State Reps. Daphne Campbell and Cynthia Stafford, both Democrats from Miami, filed bills this summer seeking to change Florida’s landlord-tenant laws. The two lawmakers were part of a delegation that traveled to the 6040 building more than a year ago when problems — including sewage that leaked into lower-floor apartments — were at their peak, leading tenants to organize.

Campbell wants criminal penalties for landlords who violate the law that bars them from retaliating against tenants and requires they maintain their residential properties. Stafford’s bill would allow the courts to waive a registry fee that requires tenants pay disputed rent into escrow when fighting an eviction, which Stafford likens to pay-for-play.

“The state of Florida is protecting landlords. There's no statute to stop them from collecting money, leaving tenants in a deplorable conditions, and robbing poor people and citizens living on social security money,” Campbell said.

It’s unclear if either bill has much of a chance this session. Both have been introduced in the Senate by Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, but none have been heard by a committee. If either gains traction, it’s possible they’ll face opposition from the Florida Apartment Association, which is represented by prominent lobbyist Ron Book. Book said he’s concerned that the legislation would prolong legitimate evictions and create “a criminal penalty for theaccusation of negligence.”

“None of us support slumlords or think slumlords are good,” said Book, who is also chairman of Miami-Dade’s homeless trust, which has helped the receiver fill vacant units at the Vaknins’ buildings. “If somebody's got a bad situation, that's what you've got code enforcement for.”

Book isn’t alone in that belief. County inspectors say one reason negligent landlords are no longer hauled into criminal court is that charges weren’t found to be an effective way of enforcing minimum housing standards.

But records also show citations by city and state inspectors took years to force change at the Vaknins’ buildings, which were distressed when they were purchased by the couple’s Florida corporations between 2009 and 2011. It wasn’t until violations and fines built to $2.4 million that the city filed its lawsuit, eventually forcing the Vaknins to give up control of the properties and resulting in a $3 million Christmas Eve judgment in favor of the city.

In court filings and hearings, Keith Silverstein, an attorney for the Vaknins, said his clients were in the process of fixing up their properties when the receiver was appointed by default judgment, but were hindered by a rent strike. A real estate attorney who helped the couple purchase their buildings, Renee Marie Smith, said the Vaknins have always intended to “preserve inner city and low-income housing.”

Meanwhile, some tenants and advocates say repairs at the units over the last seven months appear cosmetic, and minimal. Smith said more aggressive laws aren’t the solution, but rather a better functioning bureaucracy, “so it doesn't take a receiver eight months to get nowhere.”

“I think everybody is doing their best, including my clients,” she said.

But in her monthly reports, receiver Linda Leali stated that a contractor conducting repairs for the Vaknins — who have also been accused of running slums in Houston — had stopped working after accruing $45,000 in unpaid work. Meanwhile, a newly hired property manager was operating and receiving commissions illegally, without a real estate license, she reported.

Leali continues to look for financing to make major improvements, and says she’s targeting specific buildings in the meantime. She’s also addressing new problems, like an eviction-eve fire in a ground-floor unit at the 6040 building that appeared “suspicious.” Still, Riggins — who said he was evicted several months ago amid allegations he was selling drugs out of his apartment — says real change has yet to come.

Greer, the Community Justice Project attorney, said one of the problems for tenants at the Vaknins’ buildings is that a number of other buildings in their neighborhoods suffer from similar conditions. More evidence, she says, that broader solutions are needed.

Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of PULSE, a Miami non-profit currently lobbying in Tallahassee for the Campbell and Stafford bills, said tenants simply want to live in humane conditions and want their landlords held accountable.

“We know it won't be a skip down lollipop lane. It may not happen this legislative session,” Wilcox said of the bills’ chances of passing. “But it has to start somewhere.