February 15, 2013

Little Havana families stuck in crumbling condos

When families bought units in one complex, they thought they’d bought a piece of the American Dream. But those units weren’t solid investments.

The owners of condominiums in the Havana Palms complex in Little Havana feel as if they are living aboard the Titanic. Everything is sinking.

“We’re afraid to walk in our own living rooms, to step into the bathroom, to gain weight, because our floors sink deeper every day,” said Mario Pineda, 53.

At the peak of the real estate bubble, between 2006 and 2009, about 20 neighbors bought condominiums in the renovated complex in the 900 block of Southwest Second Street. Some paid almost $190,000 — a fair price, they believed, for a piece of the American Dream.

From the outside, the condos looked lovely. Inside, there were tile floors, freshly painted walls and newly appointed bathrooms.

But there were problems.

Several neighbors said that they noticed cracks in their walls shortly after they moved in, and said the cracks seemed to have been covered up with plaster.

As time passed, cracks in the walls of Andrés Sergio Alvarez’s condo spread from the floor to the ceiling.

His neighbor, Juana Blandón, said she fears her bathroom will collapse because the floor is cracked right down the middle. She has her bathtub propped up with a pair of wooden planks.

Mario and Genny Pineda live in terror because their apartment is on the second floor. They avoid walking in the middle of the living room because the floor tiles are loose and sink with every step.

Over time, the problems got worse.

On Jan. 10, the Reyna and Jesús Garcia’s living room floor collapsed. The family, with two teenage daughters, has since moved to a rental apartment.

“Luckily, that happened at midnight, so nobody was hurt,” said Reyna García as she pointed to the rotten floor boards in the middle of the living room.

Not long after, the city of Miami declared the buildings a danger to the community. Municipal inspectors told the homeowners they had 30 days to make the repairs necessary to comply with the city codes.

“The building is uninhabitable,” said Mariano Fernández, director of the Department of Construction. “There are structural problems and health problems.”

The company that sold the condominiums was Montara Land V LLC, formed in May 2005 by lawyer Anibal Duarte-Viera and real estate agent Gabriel de la Campa. Miami-Dade County records indicate that Montara Land V borrowed $2.775 million to buy the complex, which was built in 1946.

“We bought that property as investors,” Duarte-Viera said.

By October 2006, Montara Land V had converted the apartments into condominiums under the name Havana Palms, and put them up for sale. Duarte-Viera said he had hired a company to manage the building and remembers doing some repairs, though he could not give details.

The condominiums’ buyers aspired to a typical middle-class life. They remember the big red signs outside the complex, announcing the possibility of obtaining financing through Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami.

Some received a loan from the county; others, a subsidy from the city for new property owners who will remain in their homes for several years.

“Everybody was excited at seeing this pretty place, one that we could buy with the help of the government,” said Reyna García, 39.

The new homeowners had to make monthly maintenance payments of $166 to $220. According to the homeowners, those payments were collected through Duarte-Viera’s and De la Campa’s company.

But as early as 2008, there was evidence that the buildings had serious structural flaws. That year, a sewage pipe broke, causing an unbearable stench.

Alvarez, Blandón, Pineda and several other homeowners told El Nuevo Herald they submitted complaints to the condominium association.

Duarte-Viera acknowledged that there were complaints, but said the unit owners are responsible for their own repairs.

“They knew that what they bought was not new construction but apartments in an old building,” he said.

The residents took their complaints to several city and county departments. In response, officials have offered to write off their loans and subsidies to help them eliminate their debts and sell their units.

“But the solutions they offer are worthless because this place is uninhabitable,” García said. “What’s the use of forgiving our debt if we can’t even live in our own homes?”

Meanwhile, in 2011, Montara Land V LLC sold the remaining 14 condominiums to a new company, Havana Palms Invest, LLC.

Constantino Cicchelli, the owner of Havana Palms, said the residents should take greater responsibility for the condition of the buildings. He said that several of the owners have not made their maintenance payments for at least three years. The association is now under his management.

“They can’t think that they don’t have to pay to maintain the buildings just because they received some subsidies from the government,” Cicchelli said. “I wanted to convince them that together we can fix the problem.”

Several neighbors told El Nuevo Herald that they stopped paying the maintenance fees in 2010 once they learned that the insurance policy that protected the common areas such as the roofs and exterior walls, had not been renewed.

Several of them also stopped paying their mortgages.

“We’re not going to pay for something that’s falling down all around us and is now worthless,” said José Pérez. “This was fraud.”

“We trusted in the government when we bought this,” lamented Andrés Sergio Alvarez. “We thought that if the city was approving loans it was because the houses were worthwhile. Now we’re up the creek, and nobody can do anything for us.”

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