Audra Wright’s large garden outside her Liberty City home yielded a bounty of fruits and vegetable for years – so much so that she figured she was able to cut her grocery bill in half for her and her three teenage sons.
But this summer, a broken sewage pipe from a neighboring apartment complex leaked waste into her garden, destroying the crop that she was counting on.
“It really hit us hard,” said Wright, 42, a vegetarian. “We lost a lot more than they think. We lost our food.”
She complained to the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) in early June about the unsanitary conditions that cost the family their summer crop of mangoes, sugarcane, peppers, beans, tomatoes, collard greens, watermelons, basil and rosemary.
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DERM notified the property agent, Pierre Clerveau, of the violation on June 14, which carried a $500 fine. Clerveau fixed the leak two weeks later.
A month later, a follow up inspection revealed that the repairs didn’t take - raw sewage was once again seeping into Wright’s garden.
The city slapped Clerveau with a $1,000 fine. Still, the problem persisted. On Aug. 14, DERM served the Clerveau with a court order to repair the pipe and clean up the stinky mess.
But the sewage pipe leaking on to a homeowner’s property isn’t the only problem with the apartment units that Clerveau manages. He oversees nine complexes in South Florida, four of those in Liberty City. Records show residents have complained of moldy units, shoddy electricity, and waiting months for basic repairs.
The apartment complexes are owned by Abraham and Denise Vaknin, of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, through two different companies – 1336 NW 60 LLC and Miami Beverly LLC. When reached by phone, Abraham Vaknin declined to comment.
Recently, Abraham Vaknin had invested in construction supplies and made a commitment to improve the living conditions, Clerveau said.
But many of the tenants have not seen a change.
“There’s something wrong with every apartment in this building,” said Clemon Dean, who has lived in 1341 NW 60th St. for 40 years and pays $350 a month. “He’s always making promises but nothing gets fixed.”
Dean, who has seen the building go through multiple owners, said the current owner is the worst one he has ever seen.
Qua Jefferson, 21, moved into the building with her two daughters five months ago. One of the first things she noticed was that her front door can easily be picked open. Anyone with a credit card can walk into her apartment.
“Every time it’s the same thing,” Jefferson said. “He tells me, ‘OK, I’ll send them,’ but they never come.
Even when repair men show up, they do a lousy job, tenant Maria Hernandez, 24, said.
Days after Clerveau sent repair men to fix her toilet, it stopped working again.
“Every time I pay rent, there is something else wrong with the building,” said Hernandez, who pays $500, but plans to move out in the fall.
Not every tenant accused the management of being negligent.
Michael Jones, 50, has never had a problem with having things fixed during the two years he has lived in the complex. Whenever the sink or anything in the apartment needs repairs, someone stops by to fix it, he said.
“People are trying to say he’s a slum lord but I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s not a bad situation.”
He knows about the sewage leak, since the back of his second-floor apartment faces Wright’s home. That, he says, is an isolated incident, and she is right to complain about the leak and the smell.
A couple of blocks away, at another building that Vaknin owns and Clerveau manages, tenants had more stories of negligence.
“I have to turn the AC off if I want to use the microwave,” said Gaynisha Williams, 34, who has lived at 6040 NW 12th Ave., for eight years. “I had to buy my own fire alarm.”
The bathroom didn’t have a toilet when she first moved in, she said. Clerveau hired workers to remove a toilet from a vacant unit to install in hers.
In August, mold and an upstairs leak caused the roof Shameka Hill’s bathroom to collapse on her 76-year-old grandmother who was inside when it fell in. She was taken to the hospital with bumps and bruises. The landlord has not said anything to her about her grandmother’s injuries, Hill said.
“He’ll fix it when he feels like it,” Hill, 31, said.
At another apartment complex, this one on 1250 NW 62nd Street, a squatter lived in an empty unit for four months and hoarded his trash. Tenants
complained to Clerveau.
“He just squatted here for months,” said Mary Brandy, 24, who lives in the neighboring apartment. The man was removed and workers boarded up the doors and windows. But, piles of trash are still inside the unit.
Clerveau said the tenants should have called the police instead of the landlord. He said he cleared the squatter as soon as he found out about it.
The Vaknins also own an apartment complex in Houston, Texas. A Houston city council member, Wanda Adams, threatened to sue the couple after the complex accumulated a $900,000 water bill and more than $400,000 in violation fines for mold and other problems.
Adams said she helped relocate more than 40 families living in the complex.
Denise Vaknin traveled from her New Jersey home to Houston to work out a payment plan with the city to avoid a lawsuit.
Adams had complained on a local television station that the Vaknins live in a $2.5 million home in Jersey.
When she arrived, Adams said, Vaknin corrected her: “She told me her home was worth $4 million,” Adams said.