Miami-Dade County

Hope for Miami ‘slum’ tenants after city wins court case

Gaynisha Williams, who has asthma, says she fears the black-mold like substance in her bathroom, pictured here in a file photo, will make her sick.
Gaynisha Williams, who has asthma, says she fears the black-mold like substance in her bathroom, pictured here in a file photo, will make her sick. WLRN

The reign of two of Miami’s worst slumlords may have ended Thursday when a judge stripped them of control of their buildings — fouled by leaking sewage, crumbling ceilings and infestations — and turned them over to a third party with directions to repair squalid conditions.

For years, tenants of buildings owned by Abraham and Denise Vaknin say their landlords forced them to live like animals while their complaints piled up — along with city violation notices and millions in unpaid fines. On Thursday, a Miami-Dade judge issued a final judgment against the Vaknins’ companies and appointed a receiver to take financial control over their properties and make repairs.

“I really do think the Vaknins can not manage their properties anymore,” said Rebecca Schram, a Legal Services of Greater Miami attorney representing some of the tenants in their fight with the landlords. “That’s been proven time and again.”

Judge Barbara Areces’ order came as the result of hard work by the Vaknins’ tenants, and through a lawsuit filed by the City of Miami in October after the landlords ignored demands to repair their buildings and tallied more than $2.4 million in unpaid fines. Gaynisha Williams, who lives with her son in a first floor apartment at 6040 NW 12th Ave., says her landlords tried to evict her after she helped her neighbors fight for better living conditions.

“He’s got us living like we’re dogs,” said Williams, pointing to a crudely patched area of ceiling that fell last year on top of her son, dislocating his neck. “It ain’t about no money. It’s about respect.”

Williams says shoddy repairs to her unit haven’t helped much. She says her power goes out if she tries to run the air conditioning and microwave at the same time, and she has to scrub her bathroom with bleach to keep mold from growing as sewage drips from the second floor unit. Her own leaking toilet was “fixed” with cement.

In the building’s most recent inspection, state inspectors found fewer violations than in past months, but still documented spalled concrete, moldy ceilings and live roaches. Nearby, Kaleena Ware, who lives in one of eight other Miami buildings owned by the Vaknins’ companies, said she sued last month after her ceiling fan fell mid-spin and landed on her leg.

Angry about their living conditions, tenants of many of the buildings — at least one is boarded up — began to organize last year with the help of the Miami Workers Center and Legal Services of Greater Miami. They lobbied City Hall and the county. And recently, after stories ran in the Miami Herald and other media outlets about the conditions of the Vaknins’ buildings, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado began calling for a return to criminal punishments for slumlords and State Rep. Daphne Campbell took interest in the case.

Attempts to reach the Vaknins, who live in New Jersey and have been accused of running slums in other parts of the country, were unsuccessful Thursday. But Keith Silverstein, an attorney hired this week by the defendants, said in court that the lawsuit had become political. He said his clients haven’t decided how to address the default judgment, but have agreed to facilitate a “seamless transition” to the receiver, a private attorney named Linda Leali.

Silverstein acknowledged the serious problems at the apartment buildings, but said a newly hired property manager was working to address and fix problems.

“The conditions at the property have been occurring for too long for the current property manager to come in and after only three weeks be accused of not repairing the entire scope of the violations,” he said. “I can not respond to the allegations specifically against the landlord that have gone on for months and months, because of 48 hours that I’ve been involved.”

Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez said the Vaknins initially took a few steps to repair their buildings after the city filed its lawsuit, but her office moved to request a receiver when the speed and substance of those repairs made them seem more like window dressing. The Vaknins’ companies still own the buildings, but following Thursday’s ruling the hope is that the receiver will be able to use the rent to repair the Vaknins’ buildings.

“We think a receivership will be a very effective tool in order to make the owners of these properties do what they need to do,” Méndez said.

Silverstein said the problems at the apartment buildings are severe enough that the transition to a receiver will likely take weeks, at least. In the meantime, residents in the buildings say they now have hope that they’ll be able to live without swatting at rats at night and scrubbing mold off their showers with bleach.

If things don’t get better, Regalado said law enforcement officials ought to go back to the days when slumlords were hauled into court and charged criminally.

“This is the first good news,” he said of Thursday’s ruling, “but we still need to send a message to slumlords that they’ll be held accountable.”