Miami-Dade County

Weeks after Miami-Dade honor, Milton family is again sued for discrimination

In this file photo, José Milton, at right, looks over an apartment job.
In this file photo, José Milton, at right, looks over an apartment job. The Miami Herald - Archives

Earlier this month, when Miami-Dade Commissioners named a street after real estate developer José Milton, they brushed aside the fact that Milton’s company had been previously accused in court of racial discrimination, saying the allegations had been settled decades ago.

Milton had donated money to county parks and other charitable causes since the days of the allegations, commissioners said.

“He was a great man, helped this community…Sometimes we’ve got to be very cautious as to what happened in the past,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who co-sponsored the name change.

But on Monday, Milton real estate companies were again sued for racial discrimination at the same North Miami Beach apartment complex named in previous lawsuits. And that has prompted the only black commissioner to support the street naming to reconsider his vote.

In light of this new lawsuit, I’m truly greatly concerned that there may be a culture of discriminatory practice that has not been properly addressed.

Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime

The new allegations are from 2014 and 2015 — after José Milton, who was Cuban-American, had died and his sons had taken over the family business.

“I’m in shock,” said Cecil Milton, the chief executive officer of United Property Management, one of two Milton family businesses sued in the new lawsuit. “We have a strong policy of nondiscrimination for our employees and our clients.”

The allegations center around the Aventura Harbor Apartments, at 19455 NE 10th Ave, previously operated under the name Beverly Hills Club Apartments.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Rebecca Smith, is an African-American leasing agent for the Miltons’ management company. Smith alleges in the suit that she witnessed discrimination against blacks who inquired about available apartments; one prospective renter was falsely told no apartments were available, the lawsuit states.

“Ms. Smith has also observed black people being given the wrong price for apartments — one or two hundred dollars higher than the listing price — to dissuade them from renting,” the suit states.

After being told of the lawsuit by a reporter, Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime said he can no longer support the “José Milton Way” street naming. The county had agreed to rename a portion of the Northwest 9500 block at the intersection with Fontainebleau Boulevard.

Monestime said he will now ask the board to reconsider its Sept. 1 vote. Monestime, who is Haitian-American, was the only black commissioner to vote to rename the street. During that meeting’s tense debate over the issue, Monestime praised José Milton’s record of humanitarian work in Africa and Haiti and said the developer proved over time that he was a “good corporate citizen.”

But on Monday, Monestime said “in light of this new lawsuit, I’m truly greatly concerned that there may be a culture of discriminatory practice that has not been properly addressed.”

The decision on street naming should be reversed and the question postponed until this new lawsuit is resolved, Monestime said.

In addition to Smith, the employee, the other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are Kelven Davis, an African-American woman allegedly disqualified from renting at Aventura Harbor without cause, and Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc. a Miami-based nonprofit that fights housing discrimination.

HOPE, Inc. sent undercover “testers” — some of them black, some Hispanic — into the apartment complex and documented how the black renters were treated differently. Three of those black testers are also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Cecil Milton said he has yet to be served with the lawsuit. A Herald reporter provided him with a copy. “Discrimination is something that you do on purpose,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody, and my organization doesn’t hate anybody.”

Smith also contends in the suit that she herself was discriminated against when she tried to take advantage of a 25 percent rental rate discount that the company offered its employees. The company, according to the lawsuit, asked her to pay a $95 application fee that was not charged to white or Hispanic employees. Smith also said in the suit that she was told she would have to submit to a criminal background check — something that was not done with other employees.

The suit states Smith met with one of the company’s attorneys in January about these issues, and she ultimately decided not to live in Aventura Harbor “because she did not desire to live in a place which discriminates.”

Milton said he was unaware of Smith having raised any discrimination complaints within the company.

In the mid-1990s, the Milton family’s same North Miami Beach apartment complex was accused of repeatedly turning away black apartment-seekers by falsely telling them that no apartments were available. That case ended with Milton’s company paying a $1.2 million settlement — which at the time represented the largest settlement ever paid to the U.S. Department of Justice in a rental housing discrimination case based on race.

The Milton family, both then and now, says the case was settled to avoid a drawn-out, expensive legal battle. There was no admission of wrongdoing by José Milton.

A few years earlier, the Justice Department had accused José Milton’s company of engaging in discrimination at the same Beverly Hills apartment complex along with several other rental properties that he owned. That case was settled in 1989, with the Miltons paying a modest fine, and agreeing to a three-year consent decree with the federal government.

When county commissioners on Sept. 1 approved the street naming for José Milton, it passed by a 7-4 vote, thanks to the strong support of Cuban-American commissioners.

In addition to Monestime, the commission chairman, the “yes” votes included commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto, Juan Zapata, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, and Esteban Bovo, Jr.

Three black commissioners — Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan and Dennis Moss — voted against it. They were joined by one white commissioner, Daniella Levine Cava.

Two other commissioners were absent for the vote.

On Monday, Edmonson said she was “saddened and hurt” by the whole issue.

Recalling the vote, Edmonson said, “we were pretty passionate about it, that it was offensive to us, but I guess it wasn’t taken seriously enough.”

Michael Vasquez: 305-376-3631, @mrmikevasquez