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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
According to church leaders and the two current HOA board presidents, both communities had fallen into decline precisely because there were no homeowners associations to enforce the bylaws and maintain order among the property owners. "Our community here was like New Jack City," recalls Nathaniel "Nat" Miller, Vista Verde's president, referring to the drug epic starring Wesley Snipes. "There was lawlessness, homicides, and the crime rate was high. Garbage piled up in the streets for weeks. All because we didn't have an association. The county got tired of getting complaints to clean up a private community."
Olivia Benson, the church's general counsel and the CDC's former executive director, recollects that both communities were in serious need of repairs, from fixing a street drainage system to replacing broken streetlights. The neighborhoods also lacked street signs, which made it difficult for service vehicles to find people's homes. "If you called an ambulance," she recalls, "it was anyone's guess how they would get to you."
Nor were her efforts welcomed by the residents. "I went through a lot with those communities," she says during a telephone interview. "I sustained a lot of personal, verbal attacks for the work we did." She says neighborhood animosity began against the church in 1996 in a dispute over the allocation of the Universal Truth CDC's first block grant of $45,000. The grant was to be used to fix up a county-owned Vista Verde house that was serving as a community center for the neighborhood children. Homeowners were upset that the county had used the CDC as a conduit for the funds instead of giving the money to Eloise Nelson, who used to run the community center.
In 1997 Miami-Dade County, through a resolution sponsored by Ferguson and adopted by the county commission, filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade civil court against the two dormant HOAs; the suit requested the court appoint a trustee to restore the two associations in order to address the problems of trash removal, crime, and general maintenance. The county had plaintiff status because its housing agency owned 21 homes in Vista Verde. Under state law, a property owner -- in this case, the county -- may sue an HOA in order to reorganize the entity. Ironically the county had contributed to the decline of Vista Verde, since seventeen of the housing agency properties had been boarded up since 1993, becoming local blights. (In 1998 the county contracted the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation to fix all 21 homes, using $1.65 million in federal housing grants. That CDC completed the project last year, and the housing agency has already sold one property to a low-income buyer, says Valeria Bland Thomas, executive assistant to Rene Rodriguez, the Miami-Dade housing director.)
In the year leading up to the lawsuit, Benson says, the county and the church CDC held regular meetings at the Universal Truth Center to inform residents of the necessity to reestablish the HOAs. "Most of the people who are complaining didn't come out to the meetings in the beginning," she says. "No more than 60 to 100 people would show up at a given meeting. But reestablishing the HOAs needed to be done."
She also assumed an integral role in the county's lawsuit. In November 1997, in her capacity as the CDC's executive director, she wrote to civil court Judge Stuart Simons, who was presiding over the case, to advise him of the church's support of the county lawsuit and the CDC's desire to work with the court-appointed trustee. Even before the lawsuit, she recalls, she had tried to hire several property management companies for Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde, but the only firm that agreed was Timberlake. "No property manager was going to come in and manage an association that didn't have a single cent to its name," she says, adding that Timberlake was not officially hired until Simons ruled in the county's favor and appointed a trustee in 1998. "Perhaps Bob Dugger saw he could make some money in the long run, but he was there when there was none to be made."
According to court documents, Simons appointed Moie J.L. Tendrich, a former circuit court judge, as the trustee for both communities on January 9, 1998. That March, Tendrich (who died in August 2001) requested -- on Benson's recommendation -- that Simons appoint Timberlake as the property management company. Later that year the county commission approved a $240,000 loan, and another $150,000 loan in 1999, using state surtax funds to pay for Tendrich's fees and related expenses in reactivating the homeowners associations, which included payments to Timberlake. Two years later, in 2000, when Tendrich had completed his job and the homeowners associations were again in place, Simons ruled that Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde must repay the county the $390,000.
Benson also recalls that after Tendrich was appointed, she and the Duggers "walked every inch" of the community, taking note of what needed to be fixed. "The trustee paid to have abandoned townhouses boarded up," she says. "We would walk into empty homes where rats would jump out of old pots. The problems and the neighborhood's feelings about Bob Dugger manifested because his company became the enforcer for the association payments. Everything was fine until the day the trustee decided it was time for everyone to start paying."