Little Havana condo owners get little help as units collapse

When a group of Little Havana condominium owners realized in 2009 that there were serious structural problems in the properties they had just bought, they sought help from several local officials.

They called Miami building inspectors. They wrote letters to the directors of the city and county programs that helped finance their purchases with nearly $1 million in public funds. And they contacted their elected officials to complain about the developers who had sold them the condos.

In November 2010, County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, whose district the complex is in, offered to try to help convert the zero-to-low-interest loans that eight of the condo owners had received as first-time homebuyers into grants.

But they rejected the offer because it would have required them to stay in their homes for 30 years and they didn’t think they would last that long.

A month ago, the floor in one of the units collapsed. Other owners are having similar problems. The owners want somebody to take responsibility for what happened.

“Who could the county go after? The engineering firms? All the appraisers sent by the banks?” asked Barreiro.

It’s unclear when the floors in the five buildings that make up the Havana Palms complex, 960 SW Second St., began to deteriorate.

Public records show that Montara Land V, LLC — owned by Anibal Duarte-Viera and Gabriel de la Campa — bought the 1946 apartment complex for $2.5 million in 2005. The developers converted the units into condominiums the following year, investing about $120,000 to repair the electric and plumbing systems, as well as installing central air conditioning, according to city permits.

Between December 2006 and March 2009, Montara Land sold 18 of the units to buyers, 14 of whom qualified for government aid for low- to moderate-income first-time homebuyers. The prices of the condominiums dropped as Miami’s real estate bubble burst, but the sales varied from $119,000 for a one-bedroom to $184,000 for two. By 2010, when the real estate market had collapsed, they sold one last condo for $44,000.

Unable to sell the remaining 13 units, Montara Land began to rent some of them out, according to the residents. The developers finally sold the remaining stock to investor Constantino Cicchelli in March 2011 for $475,000, or less than $37,000 per unit. Duarte-Viera and De la Campa shut down their company that September.

The condo owners say that the floors showed signs of deterioration shortly after they moved in. After a 2009 city inspection confirmed problems with the floor joists, Montaramade some repairs, but the work was never completed, according to city records.

Duarte-Viera told El Nuevo Herald said that he remembers that some repairs were made in the complex but said he was unfamiliar with the details.

The owners say they asked the developers to take responsibility for repairing structural damages. When the work didn’t take place, they reached out to government officials for help.

In October 2011, the county offered another solution: It gave the condo owners the option to sell or rent their units before the loans expired. “This waiver has been approved due to the unsafe structural condition of the property and the developer’s non compliance with the city of Miami building codes,” wrote Rubén Arias, the county’s public affairs director.

But the owners also turned down that offer. By then their properties had lost so much value that, even if someone wanted to buy them, the money from the sales would not have been enough to pay off their mortgages. The condos currently have assessed values of between $41,770 and $48,450, according to the county’s property appraiser.

At the city level, the deputy director of Miami’s Community Development Department told the condo owners in November 2011 that he would recommend total or partial pardon of the debts to a committee with authority on such matters. Nine owners received aid from the city government. However, the city could not allow the property owners to participate once again in the first-buyers program as they had requested.

For now, many of the condo owners at Havana Palms say their only recourse is a civil suit. They are unsure who to sue because Montara Land no longer exists. They are considering a suit against the private appraisers sent by the banks or the private engineering firm that conducted a 40-year certified inspection of the complex in 2009 that found the complex structurally sound.

Juana Blandón, one of the few owners who did not receive government aid to buy her condo, is among those in talks with a pro bono attorney. Blandón’s bathroom floor has broken in two and the floors in the rest of the unit feel spongy.

“Maybe we will have to sue the banks, the inspector and all those responsible in order for this to get resolved,” Blandón said. “We have no other choice.”

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