Why Not Hit 'Em Where It Hurts?

Slumlords might think twice if their wallets were up for grabs

The City of Miami finally condemned a filthy, vermin-infested, physically dangerous Wynwood apartment building on September 13, after years of pleas for help from tenants. Thirty families renting apartments there had endured horrendous living conditions, and their torment only worsened when the city ordered the 44-unit complex vacated. Few of the single mothers and elderly residents had ready cash for deposits and rents at new addresses, let alone private vehicles to carry themselves and their belongings from old apartments to new ones. Without electricity or water the evening of September 18, many families huddled in the building's courtyard when darkness descended. Some attempted to sleep on nearby sidewalks.

Media attention shined a spotlight on the tenants' hellish situation, with daily stories in the Miami Herald and news broadcasts on WFOR-TV (Channel 4). In that glare Miami City Manager Carlos Gimenez convened an emergency meeting of city staff on Tuesday, September 19, as rain threatened and then poured down on the outcasts. That session resulted in a gift of public money to paper the tenants' path to a new life.

The city's Department of Community Development quickly pulled up in its mobile assistance center, 30 employees on hand to help. That night the city paid for 23 families to sleep in a motel. The following day city staffers ferried children back and forth to school and assisted adults in hunting for new apartments and even new jobs. As new residences were located, Miami-Dade County's Department of Human Services paid the first month's rent for 27 of the displaced families while the City of Miami chipped in for the last month's rent and security deposit. The city also hired a moving company to haul the tenants' possessions from their old apartments to their new lives.

Scene of the Oliver-Lynn apartment disaster: Taxpayers coughed  up tens of thousands  in cash and man-hours
Steve Satterwhite
Scene of the Oliver-Lynn apartment disaster: Taxpayers coughed up tens of thousands in cash and man-hours
Scene of the Oliver-Lynn apartment disaster: Taxpayers coughed  up tens of thousands  in cash and man-hours
Steve Satterwhite
Scene of the Oliver-Lynn apartment disaster: Taxpayers coughed up tens of thousands in cash and man-hours

These admirable acts of kindness did not come free of charge, however. At least $38,000 in taxpayer money was spent in the process, and that figure doesn't include the inordinate amount of staff time expended in aiding the tenants, time that should have been devoted to other city business. But with 30 families at last successfully relocated, Gimenez brought the city's involvement to a self-congratulatory close with a nod to William Shakespeare: “All's Well That Ends Well,” the city manager titled a September 27 press release.

Dostoyevsky might have been a more appropriate literary figure to invoke, for the principal antagonist in this grim tale of urban decay and neglect seems to have escaped meaningful punishment. Public records show that Oliver-Lynn Properties in Atlanta, Georgia, owns the condemned apartment building at 2158-2162 NW Fifth Ave. Despite the fact that city and county coffers have been reduced by nearly $40,000 in cash, and that untold hours of valuable staff time have been squandered, the company's owners needn't fear any serious financial reprisals. Why? Because neither the city nor the county plans to seek reimbursement.

Attorneys for both city and local governments say they lack the legal tools to force repayment of the money. Miami City Attorney Alejandro Vilarello rationalizes this inability to collect by asserting that the city already has punished Oliver-Lynn Properties. In condemning the building, he says, the city quashed the company's ability to produce rental income.

But at least one local legal expert sees it differently. University of Miami law professor David Abraham, a specialist in property law, says public dollars spent assisting tenants forced to move because of landlord negligence can and should be recovered. “Property owners often -- or slumlords often succeed in milking the property and then leave the results of that to local government to clean up,” Abraham says. “It would be up to a court as in any damage claim, but it seems to me a plausible claim.”

A successful journey toward such a claim would begin with a paper trail, easily established by virtue of the many regulations to which landlords must adhere. The state division of hotels and restaurants licenses owners of rental properties with more than four units. Inspectors are supposed to visit those properties twice yearly and can cite an owner for violation of a wide range of laws. Penalties include fines, suspension of licenses, and “closures” of buildings. Although the state cannot order tenants to leave a building, “closure” forbids landlords from collecting rent and allows tenants to place the money in escrow until the landlord makes repairs.

Local municipalities, on the other hand, do have the authority to order tenants to vacate a building that has been condemned as unsafe. If the owner doesn't remedy the problems, local governments will tear down the structure and put a lien on the property to recover demolition costs.

All these actions are routinely documented and could serve as a foundation for later claims, according to Abraham. Miami City Attorney Vilarello remains skeptical. Referring to the Oliver-Lynn apartment fiasco, he says, “We had no contractual or legal obligation to assist in relocation. We had other reasons that weren't based on statute or contract. When we do something we are not obligated to do by law or contract, can we then charge a third party for the cost? I don't think we can do that.”

Abraham counters by suggesting that the city should test the idea before a judge. “It would be interesting to see what a court of law thought of that in the instance of repeated and substantial violations. Added to the bill could be the damages, since people are being removed from a situation that involves imminent danger as well as code violations.”

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