On April 1, Pierre-Richard Maximilien wrote his monthly rent check of $3,200 for the travel agency he has run for the past eight years at a strip mall on Northeast Second Avenue and 82nd Street. He handed the payment to his new landlord Thomas Conway, who bought the property in March. Conway had come to collect the rent in person.
But a few days later, Maximilien said, his rent check came back in the mail — followed by a notice informing him his month-to-month lease was being terminated because of non-payment of rent. He has been ordered to vacate the premises by May 31.
His story is similar to a dozen others told by owners and employees of nearby businesses in Little Haiti. River Esquinas LLC, the company owned by Conway, is evicting the longtime tenants of two strip malls near Northeast 82nd Street and Second Avenue, which Conway purchased in March — even though the tenants say they all payed their rent on time.
Some of the businesses — which include a tuxedo shop, clothing store, tax and immigration services and restaurants — have been in business as long as 30 years. But because they are operating on month-to-month leases, Florida law allows the landlord to terminate their tenancy with only 15 days' notice.
The eviction is the latest clash between longtime residents of Little Haiti and real estate developers who are scooping up land in the area, betting that the development in nearby Wynwood and Edgewater will spill northward into the economically-deprived neighborhood.
"Little Haiti used to be a blighted, depressed area in the 1970s and 80s," said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), an advocacy group for immigrants and low-income families. "Little Haiti is now a very diverse, thriving, wonderful neighborhood built by Haitian immigrants out of sheer resilience and determination. Now several years later, developers are coming from left and right, displacing those immigrants who built this community, displacing businesses and forcing them out."
According to court documents, Conway has initiated eviction or termination of tenancy proceedings on 13 of the 15 businesses at 8200 NE Second Ave. and 201 NE 82nd St. The two unaffected businesses — a Metro PCS franchise and the art/design furniture store The Empty Apartment — both moved into their location in 2017 and have two-year leases.
On Thursday, FANM organized a press conference, where 35 owners and employees from the affected businesses announced a series of demands: A six to 12-month stay of the eviction notices to allow the shop owners time to relocate, a commitment for the right to return once the buildings have been renovated, and equal treatment for all Haitian business owners.
"We're demanding a lot, but we deserve a lot," said Cartine Vilson, community organizer for FANM. "We Haitians deserve the right thing. We are asking for help. We have a voice and we need people to hear us."
Conway, who keeps an office at the Made at the Citadel co-working space a half-block away from the two malls, did not respond to repeated requests from the Herald for comment.
Government officials have not met with the store owners, according to Bastien.
The group says it has called on Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, District Five city commissioner Keon Hardemon and the Miami City Commission to help them secure new spaces for their businesses. Bastien said that the group has been requesting a meeting with Hardemon "for weeks," without response. She said Mayor Suarez had replied to the group's plea but a meeting has not yet been set.
In an email to the Herald, District Five executive assistant Kiara Garland stated that Hardemon's office is unaware of any conflict between the business owners and Conway.
"This is the first that we are hearing of this matter," she said. "The lease agreements in question are private. They should be reviewed by private counsel. If anyone’s rights are being infringed upon, counsel is capable of advocating on behalf of the tenants. The District Five office does not have the authority to determine whether or not their leases can be extended."
The city of Miami officially designated Little Haiti as a city neighborhood in 2016 in the culmination of a decade-long campaign by Haitian activists who live in the area. The neighborhood stretches north from 54th to 79th streets and west from Northwest Sixth Avenue to Northeast Second Avenue.
In January 2017, the real estate website Zillow pegged Little Haiti as the hottest residential neighborhood in South Florida, with home values projected to rise 4.6 percent compared to 1.6 percent growth overall for Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But the median home list price in Little Haiti has actually dipped slightly, from $330,000 in March 2017 to $310,000 in March 2018. The median rent price hit a five-year high in March of $1,831 per month, up from $1,428 in March 2013.
According to public records from the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser's Office, Conway bought the 30,000-square-foot strip mall at 201 NE 82nd St. in March for $6.2 million under the corporation River Esquinas LLC. The sale of the 51,000-square-foot lot at 8200 NE Second Ave. has not yet been recorded, but the website RealtyTrac shows the property was sold in March for $6.25 million.
The impacted business owners say Conway wants them out because they are longtime tenants who pay lower rents for spaces that have not been renovated. Marie Jeannine Desir, who owns the clothing store Jeannine Variety Store Plus, pays $1,800 per month in rent for her shop, which she has run for 11 years.
"I don't have a husband: This business is what I pay my bills with," Desir said. "The developer told us he needs everybody out because he wants to rebuild the place. He's already brought people to look at the buildings. I need help. This is the only place I have."
The shop owners say construction on Northeast Second Avenue, which has reduced the four-lane, high-traffic road to two lanes for the past several months, has eaten into their business, making the timing of the eviction notice even worse.
John Sirin, a manager at the Metro PCS franchise, said that although his business is a recent arrival into the neighborhood, the showdown between his neighboring tenants and their common landlord has him worried.
"Most of these businesses have been here for 20 or 30 years, so it feels like a family," Sirin said. "My family does their taxes at the place next door. To me it seems crazy to tell people they have to move if they're paying their rent on time. It's unfair. It means he could kick us out, too. He could kick everybody out."