Philip Levine, Challengers Batter Each Other Over Senior Housing Towers

Rebecca Towers is a relic of another South Beach: a senior housing complex located amid multimillion-dollar waterfront condos. That fact has also made the towers a regular target for conspiracy theorists on the Beach for a simple reason: The land on which the government-run subsidized housing sits is worth millions during a luxury property boom. 

The latest cries of a shady money-making plot in the works have now enveloped Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and his political opponents, leading to a week of ominous scare videos and robust denials from the mayor, who swears the towers will never be redeveloped on his watch.

At the center of the firestorm is powerful lobbyist and political consultant David Custin, who is running Levine's reelection campaign and who also had a short but lucrative lobbying deal for a marina near the towers.

In videos and interviews, Levine's political opponents have connected dots to insist that Custin's work for the marina — which paid $10,000 a month for three months earlier this year — amounted to a secret plot to kick seniors out of the towers and sell the land to developers. Critics point to the exact language used in his lobbying forms with the city, where he registered to work on "redevelopment of property and City approvals for Miami Beach Marina & Rebecca Towers.”

"I've seen too many seniors kicked out of affordable housing in this city, and I won't allow it to happen again," says Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, a city commission candidate who has sent emails about the Rebecca Towers debate. 

But Custin insists the work was far more prosaic than Gonzalez and other doubters imagine. Miami Beach Marina wanted to consider renovating its docks in exchange for a longer lease with the city, he says. They hired him in February at $10,000 a month but dropped the idea by May as unfeasible, he says; in all, he made $30,000 on the deal. (The marina's owners confirm this story with the Miami Herald.)

Why list Rebecca Towers on his lobbying forms? Custin says the idea of adding more parking for the senior housing was bandied about as part of the project. 

Custin reacts furiously to suggestions that he would help developers target the elderly. "They're trying to scare old ladies," he says. "Those people get stressed, they have heart issues, and these motherfuckers are trying to scare them for what? To score political points?"

In fact, Custin says, the attacks are cynically motivated. Levine's polling numbers with elderly Hispanics are "off the charts," he says. A political slate of candidates including Gonzalez and mayoral challenger David Weider sparked the attacks, he alleges. 

"There's nothing they won't say or do to lie to go after this mayor," Custin says. Levine, in turn, has produced his own set of videos promising to keep the towers safe, including an email blast this morning: 

"Despite my clear statements on my unbreakable support for Rebecca Towers, some have continued their shameful lies and scare tactics that only hurt our seniors," Levine writes. "I have been all in for the residents of Rebecca Towers and all our seniors."

But Gonzalez says she's still not convinced. Why would Custin register with such specific language about redeveloping Rebecca Towers? (Asked if he has any paper documenting that his work was a marina redevelopment and not a project related to Rebecca Towers, Custin says, "I can tell you that there exists zero documentation substantiating their made-up story of demolishing Rebecca Towers or displacing seniors/residents from their homes.")

"I don't believe him," Gonzalez says. 
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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