By nearly all accounts, Art Basel and Art Miami were enormously successful, bringing together people who enrich our community in many ways. Yet, just a few short miles from all the glamorous parties are some of Miami’s poorest and crime-ridden apartment buildings where tenants are held hostage by poverty and slumlords. There are landlords in Liberty City and Overtown who knowingly rent rat- and roach-infested apartments to poor families who must live with seeping sewage and collapsing buildings.
Last Sunday, The Miami Herald featured Tenants of Miami ‘slums’ seek better life, which explains, in graphic detail, the conditions of some apartment buildings that have holes, mold, vermin, raw sewage and toilets that do not work. They are not abandoned buildings; they are home to men, women and children who are unable to find a better place to live. For example, earlier this year, a 16-year-old had his neck dislocated when the apartment’s ceiling caved in on him while he slept. The boy’s mother had complained to the landlord numerous times that there was a severe leak in the ceiling, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
These families live in one of the county’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city and county, but perhaps the biggest crime is that it is allowed to happen. Ineffective housing codes and laws that should impede such neglect are tangled up in a bureaucratic mess where no one takes the responsibility to act. As a result, property owners who contribute to slums and blight are allowed to amass significant fines and fees with apparent impunity.
Who owns these apartment buildings and why do they get away with it? Abraham A. and Denise Vaknin live in a $2.4 million New Jersey mansion and own many properties in cities throughout the country. In many of these, such as Houston and Indianapolis, they have amassed numerous complaints, all ranging from health and safety issues to not returning security deposits. The Vaknins do not seem to care about the fees, liens or lawsuits — it is apparently how they do business.
In Houston, Denise Vaknin owned Crestmont Village, an apartment complex where residents, according to local media sources, often complained about a lack of electricity and basic services. It got so bad that the city issued more than $488,000 in fines and citations, which the Vaknins long ignored. They even owed $900,000 in Houston for an unpaid water bill. In Indianapolis, when the going got tough, they declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but got into a dispute with U.S. Bank over the mortgage. In Miami, the cases are strikingly similar.
City of Miami officials have fined the Vaknin’s $2.4 million for code, building and fire violations spread across six buildings they own. They do not have a required license to operate an apartment building. Now, Miami officials have filed an injunction to keep the Vaknins from taking on new tenants until they repair the buildings.
There is some question as to whether the city or the county has the authority to require property owners to repair buildings. But that is nonsense — they can take action if the building is a health and safety hazard. The county has a health department that can intervene, and then there is the Unsafe Structures Board, which is a quasi-judicial advisory committee that reviews the decisions of building officials regarding buildings that are deemed unsafe. If Miami has not presented these cases to them, they should.
Buildings can be closed for repairs or condemned if they pose a threat to the health or safety of the tenants. They must have running water and bathrooms that function properly.
It is astounding that at the height of an extraordinary luxury-building boom, too many residents in Miami and the county live in squalor.
Ironically, these properties are located within a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) created to eradicate slums and blight. Clearly, something has gone awry.
Slumlords break laws and denigrate humanity for profit; they need to be held accountable. City and county officials also bear responsibility for turning a blind eye to this obvious abuse. The community will get involved if asked via a task force to solve this problem as has been done in the past.
It is one problem we all share — and one we are fully capable of correcting.