Carry That Wait

Got a problem with your landlord? Take a number. A big number.

So you're tired of the leaky ceiling in your apartment, the rodents are beginning to have their way, and your landlord has not resurfaced since he came to pick up the rent. If you live in unincorporated Dade County or the City of Miami, and your apartment building contains more than four units, you may find your only chance for salvation by dialing 470-5680, a rather obscure state agency called the Division of Hotels and Restaurants (DHR) for the Florida Department of Business Regulation.

But that relief may not be immediately forthcoming, even if the leaks are so bad you're afloat. And it probably wouldn't be the fault of the agency, whose hard-working, well-meaning employees are doing the best they can. Unfortunately there are only fifteen of them responsible for licensing and inspecting almost all the hotels, motels, rooming houses, and privately owned rental-apartment buildings (with five or more units) from the Broward County line to Key West. More than 8000 properties in all.

This hasn't always been the case. Until this past spring, Metro-Dade County pitched in, performing inspections of all apartment buildings in unincorporated Dade and the City of Miami. But in May, the county quit inspecting the larger privately owned apartment buildings and began referring all complaints to an already overburdened DHR.

As a result, according to a DHR receptionist, complaint calls to her office have increased from about four per day to more than a dozen; and double that number on rainy days. The increase has been so severe that callers are now asked to send in their complaints by mail, unless it's an absolute emergency. "That's one of the reasons we dispatch the inspectors directly from home and call in for their messages," explains DHR district administrator Paul Kita, who arrived on the job in July 1990. "I tell you, I don't know what I'd do without beepers."

County building administrators say they're sympathetic about the workload, but budget considerations are to blame for their decision. The county's Building and Zoning Department, which took over the inspections of all public and private rental apartments in 1987, found that housing inspections gradually drained its coffers. "We tried to get a fee passed to pay for inspections," says Grisel Rodriguez, the code administrator who oversees the code-enforcement unit of Building and Zoning. But the county commission voted it down, Rodriguez says, partly on the grounds that Dade's inspections overlapped with the state's.

Others say the county was far more callous than Rodriguez suggests, and left an unsuspecting, understaffed state agency carrying the full load. "Kita was new in town. He got suckered," says one state official intimately familiar with the Dade County housing situation. "He was given a Trojan horse. He thought it would be no problem, and Building and Zoning was happy to give it away."

The real losers in this arrangement, though, may be renters in low-income, privately owned apartment buildings; the real winners, the slumlords. Not only are the DHR inspectors overburdened, but Kita maintains the county's inspection guidelines are far more rigorous than the state's. Furthermore, according to both state and county officials, the state's housing code is inferior to the county's code. The county possesses a diverse arsenal of legal weaponry to battle negligent landlords, including the power to take cases to court. The state, on the other hand, is empowered to shut a place down, but its remedies are slower and lack the authority to put a landlord before a judge.

"The disadvantage is that we no longer have two agencies working together for a purpose," says Kita, ever the gentleman-bureaucrat. "When you've got more people going into a building to regulate it, you're going to have higher compliance."

Chief Assistant State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was so concerned about the current inspections arrangement that she called a meeting late last month with representatives from the state and the county. The state, she fears, has neither the interest nor the ability to enforce the county code, which she says contains "one of the greatest safeguards that this community has" to ensure safe buildings. Rundle says the meeting was cordial and that "everyone seemed sincere about recognizing the problem," but no concrete plans were formulated.

Under the current arrangement, says Rundle, the county can't ensure minimum standards because it has "abdicated" its responsibilities. "The state doesn't have adequate enforcement," she says angrily. "Common sense will tell you that we're asking the state to do an ineffective job."

While Building and Zoning's administrators admit that Dade County is ultimately responsible for ensuring compliance with its own code, even if the state is doing the inspecting, Grisel Rodriguez indicates that it's up to the state to ask for help if they need it, saying, "We're open to suggestions of helping them put teeth in their code." Rodriguez dismisses DHR's current feelings of duress as "growing pains," adding, "I think they have to re-evaluate how they're going to go about doing the work. I think they've been overwhelmed."

However, Rodriguez says county help will come with a price tag. "We are open to the state approaching us and giving us a contract to inspect, as long as we will be compensated," she says defiantly.

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