Every week, Tamika Knights goes through four 64-ounce bottles of bleach.
Knights, 35, lives in Glorieta Gardens, a subsidized, low-income apartment complex surrounded by junk- and scrap-metal yards in an industrial area of Opa-locka.
Her four kids use the bleach to disinfect and clean the place before school and again before bedtime. The apartment’s one bathroom is crawling with mold, a constellation of dark brown dots spread across the walls and ceiling. A sheet of mold coats the area beneath the kitchen sink. The bleach helps, at least temporarily, but the mold never fails to grow back. The air conditioner leaks, and Knights’ bedroom floods when rain seeps through the ceiling.
All four of her children have asthma, and all four have tested positive for lead, the mother says.
In 2015, Glorieta Gardens’ owners received tens of millions of dollars in tax-exempt bonds and tax credits to renovate the 328-unit complex. But tenants, who had to leave their homes for months, say the rehab work was slapdash — a coat of paint, new lighting fixtures, refurbished appliances, new windows — and wonder where all that money went.
“We did the city of Opa-locka a favor by fixing up that property,” said Jeff Staley, asset manager for New Vision Housing Foundation, the property’s owner. “It is light years ahead of where it was.”
Based on the conditions in her unit, Tamika Knights doesn’t feel like anyone did her a favor.
“The only thing that they did that I could see was the kitchen cabinets,” said Knights, whose apartment didn’t even get a new coat of paint. “We have more problems now than we did before the renovations.”
Staley says roofs and common areas were upgraded, along with the units.
Federal regulations require housing complexes like the Gardens to be decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair. Apartments must be free of health and safety hazards.
Even after the multimillion-dollar renovation work, the Gardens did not satisfy those requirements, failing a May federal inspection with a score of 58, two points below the passing score. Inspectors for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also found potentially life-threatening health and safety deficiencies, such as missing smoke detectors, peeling paint, widespread roach infestation, and flooding problems in common areas and parking lots.
Nationwide, just 4 percent of privately owned, subsidized homes receive failing scores, according to the housing agency.
New Vision appealed the HUD inspection score, receiving a barely passing grade of 67 out of 100 points.
“HUD continues to work with the owner to ensure each deficiency is being addressed and corrected,” HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said.
The federal government offers tax exemptions and tax credits to developers to encourage investing in and renovating affordable housing. Nationwide, the tax credits alone are estimated to cost $9 billion in lost tax revenue each year, according to the congressional research service. Yet as the plight of the Gardens residents shows, there is startlingly little oversight to ensure developers are using taxpayer money as designed — to improve living conditions and provide habitable affordable housing.
Interviews with a dozen residents, visits to the Gardens and a review of photos and videos residents took of their homes show a pattern of deteriorating and unsanitary conditions following the renovation.
“Everything was a temporary repair,” said Ibet Lopez, 55, who has lived in a one-bedroom apartment for about four years. “They did nothing about the mold and mildew.”
Lopez and other tenants said most of the 700 people who live in the Gardens are afraid to speak out because they are poor, receive federal rent subsidies and have no place else to go.
Lopez said the owners, who are based in Palm Beach County, have profited from their predicament.
“Why spend money to fix it when you can make money the way it is?” Lopez said.
Junk yards, repair shops
The lavender-gray buildings that make up the Gardens, located in two sections on Alexandria Drive and Northwest 30th Avenue off Opa-locka Boulevard, were built in the early 1970s. At the time, the property was bordered by a former lake filled with solid waste. Now, the neighbors are junkyards, car repair shops and warehouses.
The federal government subsidizes the 328 apartments through its Section 8 housing assistance program. Tenants contribute up to 30 percent of their income toward their monthly rents, which range from $900 to $1,400. HUD foots the rest of the bill, paying the property owner directly. Some residents, like Knights, whose only income is disability insurance due to a respiratory issue, pay no rent.
In 1992, real estate developer and entrepreneur Dilip Barot bought the complex for $538,000. Barot, by this time, had made subsidized housing the centerpiece of his Florida real estate empire: Creative Choice Group, based in Palm Beach Gardens.
Private developers like Barot have capitalized on state and federal programs that encourage the construction and renovation of low-income housing by providing tax-exempt bonds and tax credits along with rent subsidies for tenants. The programs can be lucrative, because they allow the developers and their general contractors to earn substantial fees if they finish projects on time.
“This kind of deeply subsidized housing serves deeply vulnerable and low-income tenants,” said Anne Ray of the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies. “It’s worth the effort to preserve them in the long term and keep them in good condition.”
In 2015, Barot sold the Opa-locka property for $20.3 million to Glorieta Partners, a partnership between a company managed by Barot’s wife, Naimisha, and New Vision Housing Foundation, a nonprofit.
Dilip Barot, through an assistant at Creative Choice, declined to comment for this story. The assistant referred calls to New Vision’s Staley.
Staley, who works with New Vision, said the nonprofit is the majority owner of the apartment complex — not Dilip Barot or his wife. He said a small fraction of the property was sold to Naimisha Barot’s company, solely for guaranteeing the federal tax credits to be sold to investors that help finance the Gardens renovation. A spokesperson for Florida Housing Finance Corp., which issues the tax credits, verified that New Vision is the principal owner.
But New Vision shares the address of Barot’s company, Creative Choice, at 8895 North Military Trail in Palm Beach Gardens.
In 2015, Glorieta Partners received $24 million of tax-exempt bonds for the stated purpose of buying and renovating the Gardens, according to documents by Capital Trust Agency, the Florida financial services company that issued the bonds. About $8 million of those funds went to the seller, Dilip Barot’s Creative Choice.
The partnership is also receiving $15.5 million in federal tax credits from the state for low-income housing renovations.
In total, records show Glorieta Partners allocated $24.5 million for renovating the Gardens, with about one-third of that amount earmarked for the developer’s and general contractor’s fees. The rehab developer is Globe-Op Development, and the contractor is Naimisha Construction, state records show. Both companies are owned by Barot and his wife.
The Gardens renovation project called for new roofs, railings, lighting, gutters, downspouts, windows, doors, security cameras, landscaping and playground equipment. Inside the apartments, the plans entailed repainting and replacing the flooring, plus installing new appliances, cabinets, air conditioners, plumbing fixtures, water heaters, electrical fixtures, doors, ceiling fans, cable wires and fire alarms, records show. A brand-new 10-unit building would replace eight units set to be demolished, and a new community center would provide laundry, a business center and an exercise room.
In 2016, the property managers gathered all the residents for a meeting to brief them on the plans. They told the tenants to expect to move out for three months during the renovations, and they would receive monthly $1,000 stipends to pay for temporary housing.
Residents say they were displaced for even longer and that they didn’t receive all the money promised to them for relocating. Ibet Lopez, who lives on disability insurance because suffers from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, lived in her car, which she bought with the stipend from the Gardens’ owner, from February to June in 2017. No one wanted to rent to her, she said, because she doesn’t work.
Residents’ belongings were kept in large bins in the complex’s courtyards, where some items gathered mold and others went missing.
When residents returned home, they found fresh coats of paint, new lights and new appliances. But under the surface, they said, life was the same.
“They made it look pretty with a little paint,” said Talisa Hamilton, 54, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and has called the complex home for 24 years. “This was not a multimillion-dollar job.”
“They painted over the mold and mildew,” said Cynthia Smith, a security guard who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with one of her five grandchildren.
Gardens resident Lavone Lee had to move out of her two-bedroom apartment so that a sliding door, windows, faux wood floors and appliances could be installed over a four-month period. But Lee said the owner forgot to take care of one major problem: the mold spreading throughout her kitchen and bathroom.
“The problem was here before we moved out, and it’s still here after we moved back in,” said Lee, 39, a mother of two.
Instead of replacing the plumbing, workers put shiny new clamps on the old pipes, already orange with rust. They painted over cracked bathtubs, and when some residents turned on their faucets, the water filled with paint. Newly installed kitchen cabinets fell off the walls, and the new refrigerators leaked and didn’t cool properly. The renovations were to include new stoves and range hoods, records show, but the range hoods never materialized. Knights’ stove is missing two burners.
New Vision’s Staley admitted the complex has had problems with leaks around windows and roofs but they are being repaired under warranty. He also said there was another issue with storm water backing up in the drainage area of one courtyard because of a faulty pumping station owned by the city of Opa-locka. The city repaired the pumping station, and the owner is installing a basin to capture the storm water if the pump breaks down, he said.
When asked about the mold and mildew residents found in dozens of apartments, Staley said they are isolated issues. “To say there is an ongoing mold issue, we don’t have that,” he said.
Yet HUD inspection reports show that mold has been a persistent problem at the Gardens since at least 2013.
The property’s latest renovation work was marked as completed on Feb. 19, 2018, according to a status report. But just three months later, on May 24, the Gardens failed its HUD inspection.
Management appealed the score, arguing that some lost points were due to flooding from heavy rain and that several deficiencies were “under contract to be completed as part of the rehab,” the appeal letter says. The Gardens received a new score of 67 in July.
When it rains...
At the Gardens, when it rains outside, it pours inside.
In one apartment, water seeps through the walls and into a bedroom. To soak up the puddles, the family lines the baseboards with towels and t-shirts.
And where there’s water, there’s mold.
It grew in the walls above the floorboards in a daughter’s bedroom. Green-gray specks dotted the white-paneled bathroom door. A thick, black constellation — like a swarm of ants — surfaced when a chunk of ceiling crashed to the floor in a son’s bedroom last year during Hurricane Irma. The smell of mold is omnipresent.
“If we mattered, these apartments wouldn’t be moldy,” said the mother who lives there, speaking anonymously due to fears of retaliation, including eviction.
For the years they have lived in this apartment, the mother said she has complained about the mold to management, to no avail.
In that time, her 7-year-old daughter logged at least 17 hospital emergency room visits. She was diagnosed with asthma and, later, bronchitis. Breathing issues, ear-aches, congestion and unexplained high fevers pepper her medical records, which span more than 100 pages.
“I don’t want the mold to kill my kids,” the mother said.
The mother just thought her daughter was a sickly child, but the girl’s siblings experience similar symptoms, from chest congestion to respiratory issues.
“I wake up and I can’t breathe, so I rush to my mama,” the 7-year-old said.
Herald reporters were shown a vacant apartment that was undergoing remediation for dampness and mold. Inside, the stench was so overwhelming that the reporters immediately began coughing and became dizzy. One had to hold her breath to tour the apartment, and the other reporter felt too ill to enter.
The mold is just one item in a laundry list of inhospitable living conditions.
In the anonymous mother’s apartment, no one drinks the tap water. It smells, they say. Sometimes, they turn on the faucet and it comes out brown.
When Opa-locka’s sewers back up, Daphne Alteme’s bathtub also fills to the brim with sewage. She plans to buy a new shower curtain, because the sewage backup has stained hers brown. Alteme, 41, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her two kids; her 10-year-old son has asthma.
“When it backs up, he has to stay at his mom’s house,” Alteme said.
So most residents at the Gardens choose to spend their time outside, starting fires to keep the mosquitoes away.
The tenants’ problems, however, are not limited to the Gardens’ interior. A 2014 environmental assessment found petroleum in the soil and groundwater and noted the potential for releases of hazardous substances.
Research suggests a link between poor-quality housing and health problems like asthma and other respiratory illnesses, lead poisoning and accidental injuries. Asthma alone is estimated to cost the United States more than $50 billion annually, according to the National Center of Healthy Housing. Addressing substandard housing conditions can decrease hospitalization rates and reduce health care expenses, according to a research summary from the Center for Housing Policy.
“In order to be healthy, you have to have a healthy home,” said Megan Sandel, a pediatrics professor at Boston Medical Center and an expert in the relationship between health and housing. “More and more, I want to be able to write a healthy home prescription, and that isn’t stocked at the pharmacy.”
Lopez and Hamilton have become advocates for their fellow tenants, sending property managers and HUD complaints about the living conditions. A HUD representative visited the Gardens in September, and another visit is in the works.
Their fight is a lonely one, though.
“A lot of people just settle for what they’ve got, because it’s better than being on the streets,” Lopez said.