Restaurateur Pressuring Brickell Tenants to Leave, Residents Say

Mayra Baruh, a single mom from Nicaragua, has raised two daughters in the heart of Brickell, in a diminutive building in the shadow of ever taller towers sprouting up around the financial district. Gretel Hebbert, her oldest daughter, now 27, remembers a childhood of low-rise residences occupied by fellow recent immigrants, parties with friends, people helping each other with offers of food or clothing.

"It was a neighborhood," Hebbert tells Riptide. "Everybody took care of each other... It's not what it is now."

But change is coming, and Hebbert and Baruh say the restaurateur leading the charge is playing dirty to force longtime residents out.

"It's been horrible," Baruh told Riptide in Spanish.

The trouble started in February, when Jeffrey Chen, a successful Hong Kong-born chef and businessman responsible for adjacent restaurants Momi Ramen and Sumi Yakitori, bought the property and promptly began construction work.

On February 13, termination notices were handed out to residents, all of whom were on month-to-month leases. Many vacated promptly, accepting a payout from Chen to assist with moving costs.

But Baruh says they've made their whole lives in this building and have little money to uproot — Baruh works in the kitchen at Rosinella, whose property is also owned by Chen, and Hebbert is a cosmetologist. They say they simply want more time. But when Chen realized they weren't leaving quickly, things got ugly, they say.

First, all the building's exterior lights were shut off, prompting safety concerns. The construction Chen began was excessively loud, and the dust it produced incited asthma attacks for Baruh and Hebbert. The laundry machine was also cut, they claim, and Chen distributed no-parking signs to tenants who for years had used the building lot, towing the vehicle of one resident who happened to be out of town. Then, on March 5, Baruh received a ten-day eviction notice.

Chen, for his part, says he's treated the residents fairly. Approached by Riptide inside Momi Ramen, the chef denied he turned off exterior lights or ordered cars towed. The laundry machine, he said, was already broken when he bought the building.

"We basically told them: 'Look, you don't even have a legal lease at all,' " he says. "We only have two left, and those two we have to go into court to do the eviction, everything... From my heart, yes, I treat them very, very fair."

 
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