Boom & Bust, Part 3
It's raining inside Apartment 9. Celeste Brown grabs a newspaper from a stack in her tiny one-bedroom place. She clutches it over the shamrock-green bandanna that covers her hair.
It's the pluvial uniform of the rail-thin 49-year-old widow. She gingerly steps around mounds of plastic bags that shelter her belongings. As she enters the hall, rust-colored water falls around her. Three buckets collect drops that sound like a gurgling brook.
The downpour outside the squat building at 6901 NW Eighth Ave. has subsided. The woe indoors has not. The newspaper is soaked.
"This is not my life," Brown says, her voice tensing. "I used to love the rain, but now I pray for it not to rain. Rain makes me angry. I know I don't deserve this. No one does."
Families living in this building and at nearby 825 NW 70th St. share stories of rat bites, sewage leaks, nearly swallowed cockroaches, suffocating mold, and collapsed ceilings. They also shared the same slumlord.
These renters — and others like them — are perhaps the least thought-about victims of the mortgage crisis. Banks foreclose on owners, who in turn stop caring for the buildings. And while the courts work out the details, people such as Celeste Brown suffer. Great Florida Bank, whose board includes Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, is taking possession of her Liberty City building. It should at least make the place livable, renters and activists say.
"It's irresponsible ... inhumane," insists Hashim Benford, an organizer for Low-Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT), a community group helping residents. "Great Florida Bank provided a loan to a slumlord. It's time to hold these banks accountable."
This is just one story.
In May 2005, a company called Model Village Apartments bought both buildings at the inflated price of $1.05 million each. (Recent property records list a value under $400,000 apiece.) Maurice Elbaz, a former Surfside resident, was listed as the owner.
Elbaz, whose holdings included at least three other buildings, fell more than five months behind on mortgage payments. He died in France in late 2007, residents say. Great Florida Bank filed a notice to foreclose in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in November 2007.
Two months later, the courts appointed Richard Langhorne, a Miami real estate advisor, to watch over the buildings. The same month, nearly 50 people showed up for a meeting at the Miami Workers Center to voice anger about toilets backing up and a swindler who had been collecting rent for several months in the landlord's absence. (That money hasn't been found.)
In late January, Langhorne, who was charged with overseeing the worst of the two buildings in the Elbaz rental portfolio, agreed to halve the rent to $250. He says he was appalled by the conditions. "It's unconscionable," he says. "You just hope that someone would have paid more attention to this months ago. It's a matter of social conscience."
Langhorne also ordered minor fixups to plumbing and placed tarps on the roofs, which have worsened the leaks, residents say. Though he arranged for roof repair in March, the deal fell through. "The roofing contractor we hired actually tried to defraud us," he said, declining to comment further.
By April, residents were fed up. So they tried to shame the bank into coughing up more help. Four renters handed out flyers that read, "Great Florida Bank is a slumlord!" at its downtown Biscayne Boulevard and South Beach West Avenue locations. They spent four days targeting customers and passersby until the bank agreed to convene.
Though bank officials set up a meeting with the tenants' rights organization and pledged to issue a response within 24 hours, they did nothing more than send an e-mail shifting responsibility back to Langhorne. "We are confident that you and the tenants will soon begin to see progress at the Model Village Apartments," Terrence Brown, a Great Florida Bank spokesman, wrote April 30.
Contacted by New Times, Brown, who is not related to Celeste, says the bank is not obligated to repair the buildings. "As mortgage holder, we're trying to do what we can, but since we're not the owner, we can't go in and do the repairs."
But the owner is dead.
Brown doesn't offer an immediate solution. "It's really running its course through the legal system," he says. "Ideally it means bringing in a buyer who wants to own the buildings and make necessary repairs."
He points out the bank has put $15,000 toward repairs. But housing activists believe the bank should shoulder far more responsibility.
Don Slesnick, the Gables mayor and Great Florida Bank board member, owns a golf-course-view five-bedroom residence worth more than what the owner paid for one of the Liberty City buildings.
Also a labor lawyer, Slesnick saw his name listed on a handout distributed by the tenants' rights group.
"I saw the picture in the flyer," says Slesnick, sitting in his city hall office on a recent afternoon. Bank officials e-mailed him a copy a few weeks ago. He claimed ignorance of the situation before then. But now, he says, "I feel terrible. I don't want to see anybody living in slum conditions."
He says he earned about $26,000 last year for his work on the bank's board. Records show Great Florida also made a $500 in-kind contribution to his 2007 re-election campaign.
"The bank is in a bit of quandary," Slesnick asserts, while committing to follow up with the board. "I just can't understand how this can happen. Why wouldn't the City of Miami get involved?"
City officials have not cited the building for violation nor have the structures have been declared unsafe. This is not a big surprise, because the citation process is mostly driven by complaints, and residents don't want the buildings condemned. For now, it's still a place to live — as crappy as it may be.
Says Celeste Brown: "This is one of those things that you can't go over it. You can't go under it. You've got to go through it."
Langhorne is seeking up to $87,500 from investors to replace both roofs and cover extermination costs. (Termites, roaches, and ants brazenly march on apartment walls.)
Last week, residents including Brandon Brown, Celeste's 21-year-old son, protested outside Great Florida Bank headquarters in Coral Gables. Brown wants word to seep beyond Liberty City. "Basically we just let them know what we've got to go through," he says. "Some of them couldn't believe it."
But as the bank waits, renters empty gallons of bleach each day to stave off the mold. Anthony Gray, a 53-year-old married father who leads tenants at the NW Eighth Avenue building, worries for his three children. His 14-year-old daughter, Cynthia, has severe asthma and falls asleep with the help of a breathing machine.
This year she has gone through three machines.
"She refuses to use it once a roach is in it," Gray says.
That could be because, a few months ago, she almost swallowed a roach that had scurried inside. She was lucky; she coughed it up. "You don't want this for your child, but there's nothing we can do," he says.
Residents also hope more ceilings won't fall.
Last month Katherine Starks, who lives in the NW 70th Street building, was watching television while sitting on her bed's country-blue comforter when the ceiling crashed down. "I've never been that scared in my life," says the 44-year-old.
A five-foot cavern yawns above her bed. It matches the one in her bathroom.
A few weeks later, at 6901 NW Eighth Ave., 51-year-old Anna Marie Wilson was drinking a beer on her beige couch when drywall cascaded down. She lives directly below Celeste Brown.
Her living room ceiling now sports a round four-foot-by-three-foot hole. She knows the sag in her bathroom ceiling can't be a good omen.
"The ceiling is fixing to come down," she says wearily, her eyes widening with fear. It's the Friday before the beginning of hurricane season.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.