Why Not Hit 'Em Where It Hurts?

Slumlords might think twice if their wallets were up for grabs

The legal gambit would seem ripe for a investigation, given that the Oliver-Lynn apartment building is hardly the only one Miami-Dade County where tenants live in wretched conditions. “I could go out today and find twenty apartments in Overtown and twenty more in Liberty City where the conditions are as bad or worse,” says Eric Thompson, chief organizer of the Miami chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN),a national advocacy group for low- and moderate-income communities.

Thompson believes the residents of the Oliver-Lynn apartments received such extensive help only because ACORN used its hell-raising expertise to pressure the city. On September 11 he and other members of his organization led a crowd of angry tenants to the office of Wynwood-Edgewater Neighborhood Enhancement Team administrator Sergio Guadix and demanded action. The Herald and Channel 4 accompanied them. In response Guadix managed that very day to gather a number of city and state officials at the building for a detailed inspection.

But the prospect of more condemned buildings and more homeless tenants and more cost to the city has Guadix worried. “This is a situation that may come up in the future,” he says, “and the city cannot continue to do this or we would go broke. Maybe we need to come up with legislation to help us.” Guadix's concerns are echoed by Miami's housing program manager, Lorenzo Rodriguez, who adds that the city simply doesn't have the financial resources to come to the aid of every family dislocated by condemnation. “If it was a recurring situation, it would be a problem,” Rodriguez says. “We don't have those kind of funds.”

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

All of which would seem to argue in favor of taking up David Abraham's idea that the courts might look favorably upon an effort to recoup public money spent as a result of landlord negligence. His optimism aside, Abraham warns that nothing is guaranteed. “The city or the county can go after such a person,” he notes, “but it is a judgment call whether the person has planned this out well enough to make himself judgment-proof. It could take years and they could never collect. Most of these folks who own such buildings don't make overnight decisions. They make sure it is very difficult to get money out of them.” If Oliver-Lynn Properties is any example, it can be very difficult simply locating them.

That company's address appears to be a mail drop at an Atlanta franchise of Mail Boxes Etc. It has no telephone listing in the Atlanta or Miami areas. Its registered agent in Georgia has since resigned his position and in any case claims he has had no contact with company executives since it incorporated in October 1999. And the company has yet to register with the Florida Division of Corporations.

Property records list a man named Roan Yarn as president of Oliver-Lynn Properties, and a source familiar with the condemned Wynwood apartment building believes Yarn spends time at a real estate office in Miami Beach. Others sources provided phone numbers, but calls to Yarn were not returned.

Conventional research may have ended inconclusively in this instance, but plaintiffs in a lawsuit -- a city or county, for example -- can compel responses from a defendant. And though Miami City Attorney Vilarello may believe he'll never resort to lawsuits and subpoenas served on property owners who inflict financial damage on the city, he is unequivocal in his opinion about who should pay: “Absolutely I think they should,” he says of negligent landlords. “If the professor has a way to do that, please let me know.”

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