The Apartment Building from Hell

Pay a visit to Overtown's New Jack complex, where drug dealers rule, kids play in sewage, and multimillionaire owner Garth Reeves makes excuses

Regina's 22-year-old son Maurice will be an exception. He's a student at Florida Memorial College, studying elementary education. He's out of Overtown. Regina tried to keep her five-year-old daughter Bethany inside their apartment as much as possible, partly because the girl has asthma and partly to shield her from the infirmities the other kids picked up from playing in sewage and handling drug paraphernalia. One positive aspect of her staying at home: She can already read.

Regina flew into a weeping rage last year when she walked outside to find Bethany proudly "practicing to be a doctor" with one of several syringes she'd collected in the yard. The incident prompted Regina to write a two-page letter to City Commissioner Art Teele: "At that time, I felt my whole world caving in. How could I place my child in harm's way? No mother should have to experience this. How could our owner/landlord have ignored my request to secure the vacant apartment where addicts live? We come to you with ... hope and faith that you will rally with us." Regina followed up the letter with calls to Teele's office, but she says he didn't respond.

One reason Regina gets emotional about drugs is her own past addiction, which she overcame ten years ago. Growing up in Overtown, she's seen scores of her peers succumb to myriad drug-related plagues. One of ten children raised on NW Sixth Street by a single mother, Regina says she graduated from Miami Senior High and enrolled at the University of Miami with hopes of becoming a lawyer. But she got pregnant, dropped out, and didn't return to school for sixteen years. She is a licensed practical nurse and sometimes works temporary nursing jobs through an agency, though she spends more time caring for her mother, now an invalid with multiple sclerosis.

Some apartments leaked when it rained, and others like Latosha's (above) had toilets that didn't flush
Some apartments leaked when it rained, and others like Latosha's (above) had toilets that didn't flush

Regina has lived at Crispus Attucks for fourteen years and remembers when the building not only looked good but the neighborhood was generally peaceful. She moved there between the two riots in Liberty City and Overtown, in 1980 and in 1989. The federal government was handing out big money then for urban revitalization projects. Garth Reeves got in on the action, buying and renovating the Crispus Attucks building and then signing a fifteen-year Section 8 contract for the place.

The Section 8 program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays all or most of the rent for low-income tenants who qualify. All residents at 1445 NW First Ave. were Section 8 tenants, though two were recently disqualified. A tenant's portion of rent is determined by income; most of the women at Crispus Attucks paid from zero to about $50 for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, and Reeves would receive the balance from the government. At the time his contract was canceled he was receiving between $418 and $483 per unit.

The Miami-Dade Housing Agency administered Reeves's Section 8 contract at Crispus Attucks. The agency is required by HUD regulations to inspect each apartment at least once per year. If a unit doesn't pass inspection, the county must withhold payment to the landlord until it does. According to Dale Poster-Ellis, director of the private rental division at the housing agency, Reeves hadn't received any Section 8 payments since March 1998 because not a single Crispus Attucks apartment had passed inspection since then. (Only nine were occupied at the time.)

A week before Thanksgiving 1997, people smoking crack inside the building's electric-meter room set it on fire. The room is easy to reach from the nearby railroad tracks, and easy to break into. (Several months ago the management installed a metal door with big locks; that kept the crackheads out for a few weeks.) The fire left all the apartments without electricity. "Naturally all the food everyone had bought for Thanksgiving spoiled," Regina recounts. "We had to eat from a Red Cross truck and then at a women's shelter." A few days before the holiday, exasperated with the delay in restoring power, Regina called then-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez's office. "The mayor and his wife came down to New Jack on Thanksgiving," Regina adds. "That's right. Rita bought Pollo Tropical, and she put on an apron and served dinners for the women and children."

When something broke in their apartments, many of the mothers would complain first to Regina and she in turn would call the property manager, in part because she was one of the few with a phone. In June 1998 Reeves replaced his long-time management company with the Tampa firm Searchwell, Thorne & Associates. "So then we get a new manager," Regina recalls, "and he's saying he wants to make improvements and we say that's great, now we're gonna get our lights fixed and the back gate fixed and we're gonna get stoves and refrigerators that work. Well, a lot of the mothers got new stoves in January, half of which didn't work, and a couple of us got a refrigerator. Other than that I'd like to see what Mr. Reeves did with all that money he says he spent on repairs."

Through the summer of 1998, Regina wrote four times to Gladstone Cooper, the new manager assigned by Searchwell, Thorne & Associates. The letters informed Cooper of security problems and health hazards at the building, and which apartments were being occupied by drug dealers. Meanwhile code inspectors from the City of Miami's Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office were citing the property for code violations. Miranda Albury, the NET administrator, asserts that conditions at the building had worsened in recent years and didn't improve despite the citations and new management. Police made dozens of arrests but put not a dent in the crime in and around the apartments, crime that included car thefts, robberies, and assaults, in addition to drug trafficking.

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