By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
"Timberlake don't do anything but harass people," she growls. "When they first started collecting dues, I'd seen no improvement, so I stopped paying. They sure woke up then because they come after me, took me to court to try and take my house." By the time she made good on her back dues and legal fees last year, she owed more than $4900.
During a sit-down interview at a nearby community center, a session that included the board presidents of both homeowners associations, Rachel Dugger responded to Perez's accusations and denounced New Times for fixating on the couple's personal financial problems, their private business, and her husband's alleged crimes while in public office. "If you really care to see," she says with measured anger, "if you want to write anything that is truthful, which I know is hard for you to do, drive around the community and ask around. You'll see that a majority of the people here are happy."
Claudette Brinson, president of the Miramar Gardens Townhouse HOA, says she and Timberlake have tried to work out a settlement with Perez for the past three years, but to no avail. "All she has been doing is fight against us when we're just trying to better the community," says Brinson, who has lived in Miramar Gardens for 21 years. Timberlake's contract was renewed, she explains, because the associations couldn't find another property management firm that could match its price. "Besides," she adds, "we're happy with the job Timberlake performs here."
In 1983, Perez, a high school dropout who earns a living selling plants on street corners, achieved the American dream. She and Orlando Leiva had just married, and the couple was looking for a home. They found a two-bedroom, one-bath townhouse at 21459 NW 40 Circle Ct. and scraped together enough savings to buy it for $18,000. (Today townhouses in the community sell for between $40,000 and $65,000, according to area real estate agents.) As was the case then, a majority of the homeowners in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are former tenants of public housing who have qualified for low-income home financing.
The homes in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are plain, rectangular, single- and two-story structures lined up in rows of three to four townhouse duplexes to a block. Because of the relatively high crime rate in the area -- fueled, some say, by the handful of abandoned residences and small-time drug dealers scattered throughout both developments -- some owners have erected chainlink and wooden fences around their properties to keep out prowlers and other undesirables. There are no security entrances or perimeter walls that would indicate Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are private communities. In fact both developments, which were built in 1972, are easily accessible from the two State Road 826 exit ramps, on NW 37th Avenue and NW 47th Avenue.
When she bought her townhouse, Perez claims, she received no notification that she and Leiva would have to pay into a homeowners association. "I didn't receive the bylaws and documents telling me there even was an association," she insists. She and other residents who have lived in the neighborhood as long as she has claim there was never an association collecting dues or sending out mailings of any kind.
When a person purchases a townhouse or a condominium, part of the deal invariably includes an agreement to join the homeowners association, which is headed by a board of directors elected by the property owners. The board is responsible for hiring a property management company to handle the association's finances and other administrative functions, such as obtaining flood insurance for the association and hiring security firms. A management company's biggest function is to collect monthly maintenance fees from the homeowners -- funds used to pay for the upkeep of things like building maintenance, roof leaks, and landscaping. "The property management firm operates at the discretion of the board," explains Rachel Dugger. "The board is the head of a community, and the property management company is the hands. If the head doesn't function, the hands can't do anything, either."
For years the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde townhouse HOAs had neither heads nor hands. According to state incorporation records, both the Miramar Gardens Townhouse HOA and the Vista Verde Townhouse HOA had been deactivated in 1979 for failing to file annual reports with the state. As time passed, the neighborhood decayed from the lack of maintenance and a rise in crime, according to court documents filed by Miami-Dade County in 1997, in relation to a lawsuit the county was pursuing against the two defunct associations.
In 1994 Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde welcomed a new neighbor, the Universal Truth Center for Better Living; the church is located at 21310 NW 37th Ave., just north of Pro Player Stadium and on the eastern edge of Miramar Gardens. That same year, the church incorporated the Universal Truth Community Development Corporation, one of several dozen nonprofit organizations sanctioned by the county to receive block grants used, among other things, to refurbish county-owned, low-income houses; lease public subsidized housing; and offer counseling on financial stability to low-income individuals. By 1996 the church's CDC had formulated a plan with Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty Ferguson to clean up Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde and resurrect the HOAs.