Going for Broke

On South Beach it's easy. Just buy yourself a cute little building and dump a pile of money into it. The rest will take care of itself.

The last squatter at 841 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach walks out of the dimness of the once bright and cheery Art Deco building to confront the two men he believes own the property. Ricardo is on his way to work as a cook at a local restaurant, and he has a litany of complaints to deliver. Every night when he returns home he must face crackheads and prostitutes sprawled out in the adjoining apartments. He has complained to anyone who would listen about his leaky ceiling and the putrid water on his bathroom floor. The only response he's gotten has been a bang on the door at 11:30 p.m. A some new face demanding more rent. And tonight? Tonight he is forced to step into the light of a street lamp to ensure his cook's coat is clean because electricity in the building has been turned off. "I show you the rent receipt, what I have," protests Ricardo, whose mixed Italian and Colombian heritage have matched Dean Martin's face with a Latin accent. "I am a citizen here."

Ricardo towers over Ed Aubrey and Dick Berneche, the partners who actually sold the 841 Collins building ten months ago. Friends from childhood, they look like a pair of gnomish, middle-age twins, but with very different temperaments. The blond Berneche, his face perpetually flushed, has thrown up his hands in frustration and paces agitatedly in a circle, his outrage for once beyond words. Aubrey, usually the more taciturn, can't hold back this time: "You moved in here with your two eyes open!" he exclaims. "If you couldn't see this was trouble, I can't help you."

Ricardo doesn't know the half of it. Yes, he is aware of the official city notice, posted November 21, declaring the building unsafe for habitation and giving occupants seven days to vacate. That, however, was weeks ago. And yes, he also knows the rent receipt protects him from being summarily thrown out. (Like the other squatters who already have left, Ricardo has played the legal stalemate for all it's worth. He hasn't paid rent for the past three months.) But when Aubrey and Berneche tell him that the young man to whom he paid rent was never the real manager, and that they are not the current owners of the building, Ricardo seems puzzled and suspicious.

If Aubrey and Berneche are not the owners, then why are they always here? They've been keeping a constant watch on the building, cajoling and pleading with squatters to leave. When they succeeded, one apartment at a time, they would cart out the crack pipes, discarded clothing, and dingy mattresses, then change the lock on the door. Ricardo is no crackhead, but he is the final remaining interloper. He walks away after admitting that even if they don't own the building, these two men in their tank tops, baggy shorts, and sandals have been the nicest among the cavalcade of people who have shown up at the building claiming some sort of authority. Two more nights, he adds, and he'll be out.

Berneche has stopped his pacing, but only long enough to erupt in a fit of sputtering. Aubrey tries to calm him. "Until this last one, Ricardo, leaves, we're still stuck with them," Berneche grumbles as he points to two Miami Beach firefighters who sit on a wall next to the building. City inspectors have found so many code violations, including a broken fire alarm, that as long as people continue to inhabit the place, it will remain under a fire watch. Berneche agonizes over the cost -- $60 per hour -- because in these confusing circumstances, he may end up having to pay it.

The situation at 841 Collins may be confusing, but it's a uniquely South Beach sort of confusion. Another business venture gone sour among the real estate pipe dreams that haunt the Art Deco District, this one has drawn together a rogue's gallery of Beach types: the snowbird dreamers from up north, the rich kid playing out a fantasy of money and glamour, the cold-blooded banker with his immutable bottom line, and the ever-present tribe of vagrants who live in the shadows of Beach glitz and prosperity. This particular cast of characters, however, is unusually interesting. Aubrey and Berneche, the dreamers, aren't the cynical speculators whose commitment to the neighborhood can be measured by the rise and fall of interest rates. The rich kid happens to be the son of the bottom-line banker. And one of the vagrants, a prominent player in this melodrama, comes from a wealthy Miami family shattered by an infamous murder.

As for the building itself, the glory of its 1936 heritage, once on the verge of being revived, has now faded beyond recognition. Among its neighbors are several newly enlivened renovations: the enormous Casa Grande across the alley, the Armani Exchange across the street, and the bright yellow Lily guesthouse next door, where the considerable expense of restoration has finally begun to pay off.

In the months the Lily has been coming back to life, Aubrey and Berneche have watched helplessly as their six-year struggle to rehabilitate 841 Collins has crumbled before their eyes. What was supposed to be a pleasant, twenty-unit lodge instead has become an blemish seemingly under no one's control. Since they sold the building for $875,000 this past February, its slide into decrepitude has pushed them to the brink of financial ruin. In August, after making only five monthly mortgage payments, the new owner gave up and simply walked away, taking Aubrey and Berneche's future with him. Now almost penniless, their last hope is to find a buyer with enough money to clean up the place, attract trustworthy tenants, and generate sufficient income to pay the mortgage and keep them from starving.

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