Ingrid Gordon, left, holds 9-month-old granddaughter Malana and Robert Gordon holds Robert Gordon III, 3, in a steamy apartment with a broken air conditioner. The Gordons fear they could be evicted. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald) Part 1 photos

GOVERNMENT AID

Help is a long wait away at 18,286th on the list
The Gordons wait for decent housing in a crumbling complex overcome by rats, leaks and mold.

The eviction notice came on a scorching Thursday in May when Ingrid Gordon, mother of two, had $350 in the bank, a stack of past-due utility bills in the mailbox, and nothing but leftover chicken in the refrigerator.

Then the air conditioner broke.

As heat choked her one-bedroom apartment in Opa-locka, Gordon begged the landlord for repairs. Her 3-year-old son and her infant granddaughter, who lives with the family, both need a breathing machine for asthma.

A week passed, but the air conditioner wasn't fixed. As the temperature soared, the baby cried for hours in a motionless infant swing that would have rocked if Gordon had had the money to replace the batteries.

Here in Apartment 217, in a crumbling housing complex overcome by rats, leaks and mold, the Gordons wait for a decent place to live.

They hold spot No. 18,286 on Miami-Dade's waiting list for a government voucher to help pay rent on the private market, a list that until recently hadn't budged in two years. To date, more than 41,000 families are lined up, leaving the Gordons with almost no chance of getting help anytime soon.

Up and down the hallways, others are in similar straits. They are hairdressers, maids, handymen, cooks -- low-wage earners struggling to pay rising rents in a county that has mismanaged every high-profile push in recent years to build homes for the poor.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Miami-Dade Housing Agency awarded millions of dollars to build 72 affordable housing developments, which would have opened doors for Gordon and her neighbors. But delays and dead deals stifled construction.

The failures came in a community with an old and decrepit housing stock, and new homes that typically cost about $380,000 -- out of reach for an overwhelming majority of families. Public housing is scarce: Since 1992, the Housing Agency has demolished more than 1,400 aging units and sold another 600.

Gordon, a nursing assistant, spends more than half of her take-home pay to lease an apartment more the size of an efficiency than a one-bedroom. This is what she gets for $600 a month: splintered ceilings, exposed pipes, walls stained brown from roof leaks, and worst of all, the broken air conditioner.

Her son watches Elmo in front of a dusty fan, a nebulizer strapped to his head.

"It's just horrible living like this," Gordon said.

Shemika Carter was forced to move out of her Opa-locka apartment because of the leaks in the roof and walls. She's not sure where else to go. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald) Part 1 photos

Down the hall, in Apartment 329, leaks in the walls and ceilings have forced Shemika Carter, 20, and her 4-month-old son out of their home.

On a May morning, rain pounding outside, water covered the floors and soaked her furniture. Her clothes reeked of mildew, so she balled them up into two bags and headed for the trash bin.

A hairdresser, Carter pays $600 a month for the apartment. "I cannot believe I'm living like this," she said.

Records show the building is owned by 2405 Property Holdings of Hallandale Beach. Property manager Dora Bonilla said the company recently bought the building and is fixing the roof. But there are other problems.

In Apartment 327, the ceiling is cracked. In 220, the rats gather at sunset in a nest below the balcony. In 326, the kitchen walls are filthy, stained from years of leaks and neglect.

Yet for these families and thousands of others, there is no place else to go.

Standing in her bedroom, where she and her husband sleep with their son, daughter and baby granddaughter, Gordon hopes only that her family is not pushed out to the street. Her husband Robert cleaned construction sites until a pinched nerve forced him off the job.

With one income and a $600 rent payment, the family can't keep pace. Friends have loaned them money to cover the electric bill. The children live on sandwiches.

But they are two months behind on rent. In early May, they found an eviction notice tacked to their door.

Even in a place where rodent droppings soil children's sneakers, Apartment 217 is, at least, home.

"We're hoping, wishing, praying, to get some help," Robert Gordon said, pacing his steamy apartment. "Right now, it's just about survival."

Miami Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.