For the last six months, Robert Ramos, his wife Ana Alvarez, and her grown son, Jonathan, and a menacing American Bulldog have been living in a million-dollar house in a swanky section of Coral Gables without paying a cent in rent.
The city says they’re squatters. The couple say they were duped by a shady landlord. Since September, the confusion has created a stalemate.
On Tuesday, Coral Gables commissioners made a move to resolve what can be a complicated situation arising from the murky world of foreclosures and title fraud by asking their city attorney to draft suggestions for beefing up the city’s code on abandoned property. The city also took steps to unravel the property’s ownership, and decide once and for all, who should live in the house at 601 Sunset Dr.
“Our issue, and it’s a complicated issue, is who is the owner and who has the authority to allow these people on the land,” said City Attorney Craig Leen. “We’re still trying to figure out the chain of title because it’s so complicated.”
The sprawling, four-bedroom house with a home theater and marble floors, which sits on an 31,000-square-foot lot just down the street from CocoPlum, has a dicey history. Built in 1953, it first went into foreclosure in 1997, property records show. Damian Echauri, a former candy seller and now a distributor for Green Mountain Coffee, bought it the following year.
“I redid the whole thing: the roof, the floors, the pool, the landscaping, three central ACs,” Echauri said. “That house was impeccable.”
But five years ago Echauri and his wife divorced. His wife, he said, got 75 percent of the house and he took 25 percent, with the understanding they would sell the house and divide the profits. Then his ex-wife, he said, stopped paying the mortgage.
Here’s where things get messy.
Property records still list the Echauris as the owners. However, in September 2009, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maxine Cohen Lando ordered the Echauris to pay Citibank $296,200.93 after the bank filed for foreclosure. In April 2010, the judge vacated the foreclosure and their note was reinstated, records show.
“We don’t know how or why,” Echauri said.
The house, meanwhile, sat empty. Then in September 2012, Lissette Denice Lima, a 37-year-old designer who said she was renting a room at the house, called the police. Lima told police her landlord, Jonathan Alvarez, wanted $310 to pay the electric and water bill.
Police determined that “the home was in foreclosure and that both parties appeared to be squatters.”
Lima, who could not be reached for comment, told police she was moving out.
Echauri said he did not learn the house was occupied until November 2012, when his son spotted a listing on Craigslist for a room for rent. His son called Alvarez to look at the room, and the father and son headed over to confront the occupants. Echauri also called police.
In their report, police noted that Alvarez said he pays rent to his mother, who pays rent to “a guy.” They told Echauri he needed to take the proper steps to evict the family. In the meantime, they arrested Alvarez, 27, on an outstanding traffic warrant.
“The police told me I could not go in, that I had to go through a long process and one even laughed and said I had to get in a long line,” Echauri said.
Police were called to the house again on Dec. 29, when another tenant complained that Ramos, his wife and her son broke into her room and threatened her with their dog, according to the police report. Ramos says the victim made up the claims and that they in fact had called police because they believed the tenant was using drugs.
Police arrested Ramos for aggravated assault for a deadly weapon, and charged Jonathan Alvarez with burglary to an occupied dwelling, assault and criminal mischief. The charges were dropped in both cases.
Proving ownership and the right to inhabit a property can be a tricky matter, Leen explained.
“The police aren’t fact finders. They’re not supposed to look at leases and figure out which is the better one,” he said.
Indeed, after Tuesday’s commision meeting, Leen and an attorney working with the city found a warranty deed recorded with the clerk of court showing Echauri sold the house to Prescott Rosche LLP in January 2012. But Echauri said Tuesday the deed was a fraud and his signature on the document was forged.
“I could record a deed for the Brooklyn Bridge. They’ll take anything,” said attorney Jordan Bublick, who handled Echauri’s filing of Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008.
In fact, Alvarez’s mother, Ana, said Tuesday the family signed a lease. She and Ramos said Jonathan Alvarez originally found the house through a real estate agent and moved in with his wife and two young children. When the couple split, Ramos said he and Ana moved in to the rambling house about a year ago to help out her son. He said they paid rent of $1,500 a month for the first six or seven months, but when they learned the house was in foreclosure, they stopped.
Ana Alvarez said she tracked down the bank, Chase, and was told as long as they maintained the property, they were allowed to stay. Chase paid the 2012 tax bill of $20,460.15 on the house, records show.
But the couple could not provide a name when asked to whom they paid rent and could not provide a lease.
“They say we’re squatters, which isn’t true,” Ramos said. “Until the bank comes and tells us to leave, we’re not going anywhere.”
But unless they can produce a lease, Leen says the family’s days living in luxury may be numbered.
“If they can’t show us one, we will take any legal means we can to see that this ends,” he said.
Jenny Staletovich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org