When Ward Towers opened last fall, the county moved in several dozen elderly residents, even though the building was still unfinished and promised services were not offered. Residents waited to use the gym, the library and the cafeteria, among other things. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald) Photo gallery

WARD TOWERS

Seniors still await services
The 100-unit Ward Towers finally opened, but the facilities are incomplete and its promised services lacking.

There is no pool in the aquatic center, no barber in the barbershop, no food in the kitchen.

Every morning, residents of the newly opened Ward Towers hike along four-lane 54th Street for hot meals at an apartment complex down the road.

"Bingo signs," says 78-yearold resident Emilio Quilico. "That's all I see."

Six years ago, Miami-Dade set out to build a state-of-theart assisted-living facility for the low-income elderly, a 100unit building that was supposed to be a gleaming addition to a county desperate to put seniors into homes they could afford.

Residents of newly built Ward Towers walk to another complex to get a hot meal because Ward's commercial kitchen is not open. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald)
Photo gallery

To pull off the project, the Board of County Commissioners created the private nonprofit MDHA Development Corp. to apply for state funding, oversee the project and become the building's new owner.

But delays, contractor disputes and building breakdowns have hounded the nonprofit's only new building, even as county commissioners continued to funnel the group more money and land.

Among the problems at Ward: The state denied an assisted-living license, citing a failure to provide proof of firesafety and health department inspections.

That curtailed plans to provide a host of services to residents, including meals.

Miami-Dade fire rescue twice cited the building for safety hazards, such as the failure to maintain a sprinkler system and fire alarm panel.

Miami-Dade Housing Agency inspectors found dozens of flaws bad caulking, broken counters, waterstained drywall, shoddy paint jobs, damaged ceilings, missing fire extinguishers.

After a payment dispute, contractor Delant Construction walked off the job, leaving the therapeutic pool unfinished, a barren, messy reminder of all that's gone wrong with the $18 million project.

Ward Towers Jose Lopez, in the Ward Towers kitchen, has been waiting for months to use still-unfinished facilities. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald) Photo gallery

Noting piles of construction debris in the pool area and materials stored outside, the Housing Agency wrote to the nonprofit last year: "This unsafe condition . . . is an accident waiting to happen."

Yet amid the problems, the county last fall moved 50 seniors into the troubled building.

Ward Towers had received a certificate of occupancy but was still fraught with problems, including the construction concerns and fire violations.

Last November, in fact, Housing Agency construction manager Alberto Perdigon warned the nonprofit that 22 percent of the air-conditioning units in the five-story apartment building were malfunctioning.

He also noted that rainwater had seeped through the windows.

"Some of the damages, to name a few, were popcorn ceiling finish detaching from concrete ceiling, water-damaged drywall and loose vinyl flooring tiles caused by standing water inside the units," he wrote in a letter to the nonprofit.

The rush to fill Ward Towers had more to do with money than easing the county's housing crunch.

In May 2005, Ward Towers was empty, and the nonprofit estimated it was losing $30,000 for every month the building, already more than a year behind schedule, wasn't filled.

"The way we are going," corporation Executive Director Maria de Pedro-Gonzalez wrote in an e-mail to the Housing Agency, "all the profits will be depleted by the time the facility is operational. . . . It is imperative that we start moving people in IMMEDIATELY."

In all, the nonprofit was to receive a $900,000 developer's fee, plus $4.1 million to close out the project and pay off construction bonds but only after the building was fully occupied for three months.

Today, years after the project began, the still-unfinished Ward Towers is filled.

Problem is, the residents fear they're about to get kicked out.

The Housing Agency filled Ward Towers with elderly people who needed a place to live but not necessarily assisted-living services.

The only way to pay for meals, adult day care, transportation, nursing and personal-care services is by tapping into government funds for assisted-living residents.

A contractor has been hired to oversee those services at Ward Towers. And so has an organization to run the commercial kitchen: the James E. Scott Community Association, whose president is County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle.

De Pedro-Gonzalez acknowledges that once Ward Towers is licensed, frail residents will be brought in and current residents moved to other public housing.

That includes Jose Lopez, who has been waiting for months to use the library, pool and cafeteria.

"They put us in here and now, in a few months, they say we have to move? This is too much stress," Lopez said. "They used us, like some kind of an experiment."