Kaaren Mils is sitting at the bottom of the stair landing in her South Beach apartment building, her back against the first step.
The 79-year-old takes a deep breath.
“This is the worst of the whole thing,” she says.
Wearing green garden gloves to protect her hands, Mils reaches behind her to the first step. She hoists herself up, groans, and finally scoots her rear end onto the stair.
Then, she does it again. And again. She climbs 21 steps this way, always careful so that her pants don’t get snagged and fall off — like they did one time. There she was: A full-figured blonde, primped in full makeup, sitting in the stairwell of her South Beach apartment building, exposed.
Mils lives with a spinal condition, osteoporosis and arthritis. She uses a walker to get around.
The elevator where she lives, the Barclay building at 1940 Park Ave., has been out of service for about 10 months now. So she’s forced to navigate the stairs on her rear end anytime she leaves her second-floor studio.
Meanwhile, a pile of federal grant money for elevator repairs has sat largely untapped, tied up in governmental red tape.
Every year, Miami Beach gets millions of dollars in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The city, in turn, funnels much of the money to the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, a non-profit that fixes up blighted buildings and then rents rehabbed units to poor people.
The grants come with a maze of strings attached.
Until recently, the Miami Beach department head overseeing the HUD funds had, in her own words, “zero experience managing grants or social services.” Anna Parekh, who was in charge of Miami Beach’s Real Estate, Housing and Community Development, wrote that in an email to city officials. She was fired in May, after the feds took back more than $500,000 in awards because, according to HUD, the city didn’t spend the money within the required timeline.
Public records show that MBCDC has similarly had trouble meeting the requirements attached to the grants. The organization has repeatedly submitted late or incomplete paperwork, according to emails obtained by the Miami Herald through a public records request, and statements provided by the city.
Manuel Forero, a project manager for MBCDC, says the organization isn’t to blame. The city’s process is, he said.
“It’s not a streamlined process. It should be faster,” Forero said.
Miami Beach officials declined multiple requests for interviews and only answered questions submitted by email.
Stuck in the middle of the bureaucratic mess are residents like Mils, who braves the stairs only when she has to leave for her part-time job at the Miami City Ballet or to go grocery shopping.
“On the weekends, I’m a prisoner,” Mils said. “With an elevator working, it would really make a difference.”
Since 2010, Miami Beach has awarded MBCDC more than half a million dollars in federal money to update the Barclay and repair the elevator. To date, only about $50,000 of the grant money has been spent on the elevator. Temporary repairs were made and it worked sporadically, Mils said, but MBCDC shut the elevator down last October and it hasn’t worked since.
The elevator job itself is complicated, Forero said, requiring custom-made parts and multiple permits. The nonprofit also has struggled to get the city to release funds for the ongoing work, he said.
For example: In March, MBCDC asked for Miami Beach to release grant money for the Barclay. The organization voided the request shortly thereafter because, according to the city, MBCDC asked for the money to come from the wrong source. So MBCDC corrected the request, called a draw, and resubmitted it.
Then the city realized the draw had to be reviewed by a third-party consultant to make sure the scope of work was accurate and appropriate. It took two months for Miami Beach to hire a consultant.
When the consultant finally reviewed MBCDC’s request, it was determined that much more information was needed before the money can be disbursed. For example, MBCDC sent over quotes instead of actual bills, and bills that don’t match invoices.
“It’s a vicious cycle. I give them some information, they ask me for more,” Forero said.
Meanwhile, MBCDC has continued to pay for the elevator repairs out of its own pocket, Forero said. He also noted that, when the elevator was first shut down, residents with mobility issues were offered another place to stay.
But Mils didn’t want to move. Her small studio is cramped with knickknacks and art that she has made and collected over the decade she’s lived there. Moving all of it — on a fixed income, without the use of an elevator — was too daunting, she said. Plus, she said, the Barclay has become her home. She has no family in Florida.
“That’s the only thing I have, are my friends here,” said Mils.
A notice that went up in the Barclay said elevator work would be done in February. Mils thought she could stick it out for four months. That was almost a year ago.
Now, a flight of stairs stands between Mils, and life as she would like to live it. Her shoulder is giving out. Friends can’t come over because the doors to the apartment building are kept locked, and it would take 15 minutes and a lot of effort to climb down to open them.
And without an elevator, the possibility of getting a wheelchair or even a motorized scooter are out.
“People shouldn’t have to live like this,” she said.
MBCDC President Roberto Datorre said the elevator would be working again soon.
“For sure by August,” he said.