The $145,000 Question

What has Roger Rojas built in the back yard of his house in Morningside, and why can't the city seem to find out?

In the spring of 1981 Leonid Brezhnev was president of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan was a newly installed fixture in the White House, and a particularly frigid phase of the Cold War was getting under way A just off Biscayne Boulevard in the quiet residential neighborhood of Morningside. Nearly thirteen years later, communism is an endangered ideology and the entire geopolitical world map is being redrawn. But the Morningside skirmish, which pits one unbudging homeowner against several of his neighbors and Miami's building and zoning officials, sputters on. The casualties to date: one $145,000 fine, and incalculable quantities of neighborly goodwill.

The first salvo was launched by a man of the cloth. In pruning a hedge along the back of his property, the Reverend Karl Thiele discovered that his neighbor to the rear had constructed an addition behind his home. From what the Lutheran minister could see (which wasn't all that much), Roger Rojas was using the single-story add-on as some sort of apartment building, in apparent violation of city code. In August 1981 Thiele conveyed his suspicions in a letter to the City of Miami Planning, Building and Zoning Department, requesting that officials take action against his neighbor for erecting an "illegal structure."

Inspectors visited 5910 NE Sixth Court, a citation was issued, and Rojas was given ten days to remove the back-yard code violations: a 30-foot-long aluminum building, a six-foot-high concrete wall, an enclosed toilet, and a chainlink fence covered with fiberglass sheeting. Rojas complied with that order, but the battle, according to Thiele and other Morningside homeowners, had been joined. "I heard hammering and sawing over the course of the next several years," the clergyman says. "I couldn't tell exactly what was built because I couldn't see it. But I knew it was illegal."

For the next eight years Thiele carried on a running correspondence with city officials, compiling a hefty dossier of grievances about his neighbor. Over the years, he managed to prod the city into citing Rojas for several violations, including improper security bars on his windows and a boat parked in his front yard. Rojas righted the small wrongs, says Thiele, but the back-yard building continued. As did Thiele's letters. In a 1987 missive to then-Miami Police Chief Clarence Dickson, he went so far as to accuse Rojas of harboring prostitutes on his property. The reverend's main accusation, however, was that Rojas was illegally acting as landlord, an allegation Rojas vehemently denied and one that seemed impossible to prove. Indeed, when City Manager Cesar Odio was instructed to investigate after Thiele sent a letter to then-mayor Xavier Suarez in May 1989, the city manager informed the mayor that in the absence of hard evidence such as receipts, the city's legal department would have trouble determining whether Rojas was renting out rooms. (That didn't stop Thiele from trying; he photographed cars parked in front of Rojas's house, kept a record of their tag numbers, and urged the city to run license checks to ascertain the identities of the owners.)

A retired rehabilitation inspector for the City of Miami, Rojas acknowledges that he is not the only person who lives on his property, but he says the other residents are his relatives, and he has maintained throughout the debacle that he is a law-abiding citizen who has done nothing wrong. For a time he retained counsel to deflect the complaints (Thiele's correspondence file contains a letter threatening legal action unless the "undue harassment and slander" ceased), but attorney Fabio A. Ruiz-Rojas says it has been several years since he heard from his client. Rojas himself adamantly refuses to address the dispute's details. "Just tell [the neighbors] to keep quiet!" he shouted when reached by phone for comment.

That admonition is probably directed at Nancy Newton. She and her husband bought Karl Thiele's house when he moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1989, and along with the house they inherited the reverend's frustration. "I don't know exactly how many people are living there," Newton says. "But I don't believe they are relatives [of Rojas]. They appear to be several different colors and nationalities. I don't have anything personal against these people; I just don't think they should have to live under those conditions."

In 1992 the city managed to establish a beachhead of sorts. On June 25 of that year, Rojas was fined for a half-dozen code violations, including building without a permit, encroaching on a yard's required open space, parking untagged and inoperable vehicles in his front yard, and storing construction materials outdoors. The board also ruled that a one-story addition erected around Rojas's back-yard pool was not up to Miami's building code.

A week after that fine was levied, Rojas allowed a team of four city inspectors to tour his property. They reported that the homeowner had removed the vehicles and construction materials but had failed to bring the back-yard structure up to code. Three months later city officials placed a lien on the house, in order to ensure that the city will be able to collect some money if the property is ever sold. (Florida's so-called Homestead Exemption prevents the city from foreclosing on a home occupied by a single family.) Accruing at the rate of $250 per day, the fine is up to more than $145,000 and still counting. The assessed value of the two-story, three-bedroom house, built in 1955, is about $123,000.

Twice last year a city team attempted to reinspect the property. That squad, led by Ana Gelabert-Sanchez, administrator of the Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team office, failed to make much headway: Rojas didn't answer the door when they came calling, despite the fact that Gelabert-Sanchez had sent letters confirming the times and dates. On one of the visits, though, the NET administrator did manage a peek into Rojas's yard. "The condition of this part of the house was deplorable," she wrote in her subsequent report. "I believe it is a health hazard as well as being unsafe. A complete inspection was not able to be done because of the inability to get in and inspect the entire premises."

In January Gelabert-Sanchez aimed a big gun: She filed for an administrative inspection warrant. If a judge issues the warrant, the NET office administrator will be able to enter the property with or without Rojas's permission, in order to determine whether any structures pose an imminent health and safety hazard, which would make them subject to condemnation. Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith says the City Attorney's Office is working on Gelabert-Sanchez's request.

Though he ignored Gelabert-Sanchez's communiques, the besieged resident did express his opinions in three letters of his own, preserved for posterity in the NET administrator's file. The timing of the inspections could not be worse, Rojas informed Gelabert-Sanchez. Citing his son's drug addiction and his sister's terminal cancer as just two of the myriad reasons he would be unable to make time for official visits, Rojas went on to assert that he had been a member of the Cuban army before the revolution and that he later provided intelligence to the CIA and the FBI. "I have worked with [U.S.] agencies against drugs and crimes more than the entire [neighborhood of] Morningside," he wrote. "They don't know this. I never talk to anyone here. They hate Cubans and blacks. Just ask Mr. T. Ferguson."

T. Ferguson is the Reverend Thomas Ferguson, associate pastor of Canaan Missionary Baptist Church and past president of the Greater Biscayne Boulevard Chamber of Commerce. "I'm sure that I don't understand what Mr. Rojas is talking about," says Ferguson, who lives in a spacious two-story stucco house on the east side of NE Sixth Court, across from Rojas. "People here in Morningside have welcomed me and my German wife with open arms and we have done the same. There's absolutely no discrimination here against blacks, Jews, or Hispanics. We are all working together to build bridges and tear down walls."

Not Roger Rojas's walls, however, at least not yet. And certainly not the barriers between Rojas and his neighbors, which promise to become more impenetrable. "I know there are problems, but I don't want to get involved," says a man who lives in one of those houses and declines to be named in print. "I don't want any trouble with Rojas. He's very different from the rest of us, and you never know what can happen.

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