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Without a doubt, the model unit is beautiful. Dappled light streams through the window onto a spotless beige carpet that covers the condo's 800 square feet like a fuzzy, well-trimmed lawn. The kitchen and bathroom are newly tiled and freshly painted. Dressed in a smart white blouse, her dark hair pulled back in a neat bun, an attractive saleswoman named Viridiana stands in the doorway, waving her hand across the room. "It's going to be just like this," she says, her smile dimpling, allowing the splendor to take hold. "Just like you see."
When I ask to see another unit — one upstairs — her smile stays in place, but her right hand reaches for a cell phone. "Just a minute," she says, and turns away. "I need another room to show him," she says insistently into the phone. She asks several times, with increasing impatience, until she finally hangs up and leads the way out into the hall.
The elevator opens. It is stripped bare inside, lit by a single naked fluorescent bulb. "We're going to replace them," Viridiana says coolly, referring to the elevators, as we ascend. "They're working on the ones in the other building right now."
The upstairs room is not as nice as the first. The walls are filthy, the cabinets in disrepair, and the whole place reeks of mold. "We're going to clean this one, of course," she promises. "Before, there used to be renters living here. They'll be gone by the end of the month."
Although sales in the rest of the county have plummeted — down 50 percent from last year — Dadeland Place, at SW 77th Avenue and 90th Street, has enticed nearly 100 new buyers since its 160 units went on sale just more than a year ago. Maybe it's because of the price — or at least the down payment. Signs posted in the parking lot, on the lawn, and across the side of the building scream, "Stop renting! $999 down, includes all closing costs, guaranteed!"
But like many of those beautiful condos for sale all over Miami, the place is not exactly as it seems. Some people who bought the units — which range from $200,000 to $300,000 — are already beginning to wish they hadn't. Since the condo conversion began, code inspectors have cited the building more than 20 times and levied about $13,000 in fines. Miami-Dade Police have been called out on six fire-related incidents this year. Four new owners already face foreclosure by Countrywide, to whom the owners' mortgages are uniformly sold. The condo association, controlled by the developer, has placed liens on at least five other condos for unpaid maintenance fees. Owners and renters complained to New Times about everything from broken washing machines to intimidation by building management.
"Who's allowing this to occur? Who's monitoring what's going on?" demands Doris Hall, an outspoken resident who has battled management since she moved in a year ago. "These developers are able to take the intrinsic value out of what we hold dear as American — our homes."
Armando Bravo, the building manager and a partner in the enterprise, says Hall is just a troublemaker. "She's the only person's that complaining — that's the only person," he says over the phone. Asked about other residents' complaints, as well as the many citations the owner has received, Bravo cheerfully replies, "[The residents] can tell me in my face whatever it is. I talk constantly with every resident.... Everything is perfect, perfect, perfect."
That's one way to look at it.
The Palmetto Towers Group purchased the three buildings in early 2006 for $27.5 million, a high price touted in press releases that caught the attention of Miami Today and local developers' blogs.
As the condo conversion began in fall 2006, the new owners started drawing citations from the county. At first they were minor. In October 2006, Palmetto Towers was cited for failing to register a fire alarm. Then in January, a county inspector snapped photos that showed wires hanging from a damaged ceiling, a crumbling black bathroom wall, corroded and leaking water heaters, and several other instances of mold and disrepair. Violation notices followed.
The inspector returned in August and took more pictures — more exposed wires, another corroded water heater, and a couple more ominous holes in ceilings. The elevators have been particularly troubled. They were last inspected in 2006, says chief elevator inspector Michael Chavez, and received numerous violations. Although the owners appear to be upgrading the machines now, Chavez says, "Under state law, the violations should have been corrected within 30 days and the units reinspected. That did not happen."
"After the change [in ownership], it was worse, worse, terrible, worse," says Nieves Garcia, who lived at the property for about seven years before the condo conversion began. Fifty-two years old, with a soft, polite voice and a tired look, Garcia decided not to buy.
It was then services to renters essentially ended and mold took over the building. "People couldn't breathe; they were getting sick," she says. "My refrigerator was covered in mold!" She says management ignored her: "You give the owner a list of problems; every problem they say, 'Okay, we fix it.' You go back; they say, 'I never got the list. ' They play with people."