21,000 Code Citations Can't Be Wrong

Three years into the Magic City's battle against illegal minutiae, residents want to know: quality of life? Whose?

Then, nearly a year ago, a code inspector told her the car with no tags would have to go. The portion of the yard she parks on, an "unimproved surface," would have to be paved. Then code enforcement stickered her cars, and before she knew it, tow truck drivers began routinely asking if they could take the car off her hands. In order to comply with city code, she sold the LeBaron, which she purchased for $20,000 in 1988, to one of the drivers for $20.

As for the driveway, she went to a city hearing and explained that on her stretch of NW 50th Street, the only place to park is on the sidewalk. Now she has to find the money to pave the driveway and to apply for a city permit.

Marks stands on the stoop of her mother's house and speaks her mind. "They don't care," she says. "They feel like they can do people any kind of way because it's their job." She scans the cluttered living room of the old house. She motions to the Buick, to her yard — a patchwork of old lawn furniture, an overturned foot stool, a mango tree, a creaky chainlink fence. She gestures beyond, to the overgrown lot across the street, to the man ambling down the sidewalk with a bottle in a paper sack.

Jonathan Postal

"A lot of people's souls in trouble because of their job," she says, shaking her head.

Mayor Manny Diaz sees things differently. "We're supposed to enforce the city code," he says bluntly. "That's why it's there."

A fiery native of Honduras wearing a vivid royal blue suit, Felicita Casildo wants to know why the city does not issue violations at expensive restaurants in Coconut Grove. "I have never had to go to a place where I have to get my food before I can have a drink. The law is supposed to be for everybody, not just certain people."

Casildo is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2004. An ad hoc group of 46 plaintiffs called the Union of Cafeteria Owners sued, claiming that application of code enforcement is capricious and targets those without resources and influence to stop it.

The problem, says Pablo Canton, administrator for the East Little Havana NET office, is that it was only after the city began raiding businesses that commissioners passed a city law to differentiate between restaurants and cafeterias; it even stipulated the difference between a meal and an appetizer. (Alcohol can now be consumed only with a full meal.) The ordinance states that a cafeteria must have, as its primary source of revenue, the serving of food, not alcohol.

The lawsuit, first filed by former Mayor Xavier Suarez (who declined comment), contends that such a restriction on a state-issued liquor license constitutes an illegal restraint of trade. It claims the cafeteria raids "appear to be based on discriminatory and selective enforcement ... since only the neighborhoods of Little Havana and Allapattah have been targeted." The city says the claim has no grounds. The case is awaiting review by a judge in U.S. District Court.

Alvarez insists there's a reason the illegal-cafeteria crackdown has been centered in neighborhoods such as Little Havana, Flagami, and Allapattah: That's where the laws are being broken. "I'm Cuban," says Alvarez. "It's not targeting immigrants. It's just that people in the north end of the city go to their restaurants to eat, not drink. We don't see the same problems there."

Exposito agrees. "All those businesses whose licenses were revoked were closed down three or four times, mostly in Little Havana, Allapattah, Little Haiti, the Hispanic areas. Liberty City is not the same people. In the north end they drink in bars. It's a Latin American thing."

When she is told of Exposito's claim, Casildo shrieks and then jumps up and down. "What about Monty's?" she demands, referring to the upscale raw bar on Bayshore Drive. "Don't tell me that at Monty's they don't serve you your wine before your food arrives. You don't see code enforcement there. You don't see women at Hooter's arrested for mingling."

(The difference, explains Exposito: Those restaurants are licensed by the state to sell hard liquor, beer, and wine. They only need to prove, at the end of the year, that 51 percent of their sales were food. It's a license, he adds, that's "a heck of a lot more expensive" to obtain.)

According to Pablo Canton, the first cafeteria raids targeted only the businesses where neighbors or police complained about fights or prostitution. After the task force developed a policy regarding cafeterias, the city began being more aggressive — arresting cafeteria owners for serving a single beer before a meal, or waitresses for chatting with a patron.

Alvarez bristles at accusations that raids on smaller operations are unfair. "Lots of places of different magnitude cater to single men," he says. "For them, it's a work-and-drink cycle, then a drink-and-drive cycle. The married man, instead of going home, blows his paycheck on women and beer. They urinate everywhere on the street; they get robbed — or they fake robbery reports so their family doesn't know where the money's gone — the wife's upset when he comes home drunk with no money; the wife gets abused; the children suffer. The only winners in this situation are the restaurant owners."

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