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
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.”

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.”

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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