Hardy Fuller could not believe his bad luck.
He felt he had already been stiffed by the developers who sold him a crumbling unit in a Little Havana condo complex.
Expecting an evacuation order from the city of Miami after a floor collapsed in a neighboring unit, Fuller and his wife moved to a nearby apartment building two weeks ago.
It was infested with cockroaches.
That was when he discovered who his new landlord was: one of the two developers who had sold him his now unlivable condo.
“These people are getting rich off other people’s misery,” said Fuller, who continues to pay the mortgage for his one-bedroom, $44,000 condo which he purchased in 2010 in the now-condemned Havana Palms complex at 960 SW Second St.
City officials have given residents until Monday to evacuate the entire complex because of the unsafe floor conditions. Close to 20 Havana Palms condo owners and a dozen renters are impacted.
So far no one has taken responsibility for the structural problems at the 32-unit complex built in 1946. It was converted from apartments to condos in 2006.
Anibal Duarte-Viera and Gabriel de la Campa were partners in the development company, Montara Land V LLC, which sold 19 units between 2006 and 2011 for prices ranging between $44,000 and $184,000. The development company dissolved in 2011 after the last units were sold to an investor after the real estate bubble burst.
It is unclear whether the subfloors of the buildings were rotting at the time Montara sold the properties, although an architect who examined the properties during the conversion process estimated the buildings’ structure had only five years of useful life remaining.
The developers installed heavy tiles over a thick coat of cement, and that went over wood floors. The work was done without proper permits or inspections.
In interviews with El Nuevo Herald, Duarte-Viera has said that he never would have bought the property from another real estate investor had he known of the damage. De la Campa has not responded to multiple calls and emails over the past several weeks.
Yet, after a limited review of rental properties tied to him, Duarte-Viera appears to be no stranger to aging, crumbling buildings.
El Nuevo Herald visited about 10 Little Havana apartment buildings that belong to companies in which Duarte-Viera is the owner or a partner. About half were in good condition, and workers were tearing out the floors at one building.
“When there is a problem in the apartment, they come and fix it,” said Edwin Masso, who lives at a building on SW Ninth 9th Street.
But a handful of the others showed evidence of neglect: warped floors, cracks on the ceilings and walls, water damage in the bathrooms and kitchens.
Gladys Mercado said that she pays $800 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, where a corner of the bathroom ceiling is falling through because of water damage. About a month ago, she said, a backyard tree fell, knocking down several electrical cables that were left exposed on the roof. Soon after, a neighborhood cat died on the roof. Mercado thinks it was electrocuted.
She said that she has been complaining to the property manager for weeks about the danger.
“I was afraid one of the other cats would get tangled up in the cables and cause a short circuit or a fire,” said Mercado, who is disabled after suffering a stroke. “I didn’t let my son go out because I feared he was going to get shocked by those wires.”
The tree was finally removed from the property but the cat continues to decompose on the roof.
Duarte-Viera said he was unfamiliar with this situation, but doubted the cat was electrocuted. Nonetheless, he said he will take action against his employees who manage his properties if they have been negligent.
“Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation,” he said. “If you drive through Little Havana, you’ll see that there are millions of properties in worse conditions than mine.”
Miami-Dade County minimum housing standards require property owners to maintain buildings in safe and sanitary conditions. But problems at many buildings in densely populated neighborhoods like Little Havana often go unreported.
In the past year, El Nuevo Herald has reported on renters who pay between $600 and $800 per month to live in apartments with holes in the ceilings, mold on the walls and flooding sewage. Many say they accept these conditions because it’s all they can afford and they need to live close to public transportation or be able to walk to downtown Miami.
Mercado’s 21-year-old son, for example, supports the family with his job as a server at P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro in Brickell. He walks nine blocks to work each day.
Some renters who are undocumented immigrants and are not familiar with the language or their rights, say they feel exploited. Others, who were born in this country but live in poverty, say it’s impossible to find a decent place to live without decent wages.
Fuller was born in Florida, speaks English and has attorneys in his family. He works for a company that ships flowers while his wife cleans houses. When they decided to leave their condominium, the process of finding an apartment in the neighborhood was nerve-wracking.
When he found the $725-per-month, one-bedroom unit in the building owned by Duarte-Viera, Fuller and his wife moved in the same day without asking about the owner.
This week, after being told of the cockroach problem, Duarte-Viera said that he would refund Fuller all his money. He also explained that it’s not easy keeping the buildings free of roaches.
“The big issue is that a lot of people don’t live in the most hygienic scenarios,” he said.
He added that he could make major improvements to all his buildings in Little Havana, but that he’d have to pass on the cost of those investments to the renters — an additional $100 to $200 per month, he estimated.
“If I start pumping money into those units, I’m going to screw a bunch of tenants who can’t afford more,” he said.