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Rent to Moan

Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

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."

At one point, the owners hung a giant cloth "$999!" ad over Garcia's son's window. Another time, she came home to find appliances from rooms under renovation blocking the door to her apartment.

And this past September 13, a serious fire broke out in a fifth-floor apartment, prompting firefighters to evacuate the building. No one was injured, but three residents contend fire alarms didn't go off as the building filled with smoke. Miami-Dade Police are investigating the blaze on suspicion of arson. (Management did not return several New Times phone calls seeking comment about the fire.)

Garcia says she felt so intimidated by the management that when she smelled smoke, she was afraid to call authorities. "I think if I call the fire department, maybe the manager gets mad at me.... They would say we are trying to make life miserable for the buyers." So she said a rosary and went to bed.

When she woke up, fire trucks were outside. It still bothers her that she didn't act. "I'm a brave person," she says. "But I was afraid they would come get me." Nieves was evicted soon after the fire. She says she had stopped paying rent in protest over the conditions, and is now staying with a friend across the street from Dadeland Place.

Seven days after the fire, inspectors cited the owners for failing to clean up, as well as new problems, including broken dryer vents, combustibles in air vents, and failure to maintain safe firewalls. Last week an inspector recommended that a lien be placed on the property.

Palmetto Towers has repeatedly pinned complaints on agitated renters. But new unit owners grouse about the conditions too. One woman says she was attracted to Dadeland Place the same way many others were: the low down payment. "You saw the signs? I was one of those people."

A Mexican immigrant and recently widowed single mother who asked New Times not to use her name for fear of retaliation by management, she says she signed a contract to buy the $275,000 unit in April without ever seeing it. When she finally entered the apartment, she found it bereft of flooring — nothing but dirty concrete. At first, she contends, management reassured her that flooring was on the way.

Five months later, the floor remains bare. Asked why she didn't request to see the condo before signing an "as is" contract, she shakes her head wearily. "I don't have any experience buying a house.... The [sales] girls are so pretty; they take you around, say we are friends, you are a friend," she says in a heavy Spanish accent. "I did ask to see, and they told me they couldn't show it because they were cleaning it up for me. Now they say, 'You signed that you were buying the apartment like this. If you signed, it was because you were happy about the place.'"

Building manager Armando Bravo says he knows nothing of the woman's claims, and denies such treatment exists. "Sometimes it takes a month to get the new carpet in," he says. He also denies that anyone would be moved into a condo without seeing it. "That's a lie, okay? That is just a lie."

Nancy Garcia disagrees. Her 91-year-old mother, Ida Fountain, rented a place in the building for about a year before recently buying it for $200,000. "At that time, they were offering no down payment," says Garcia. "So she figured, well, it's not going to cost me anything." Now, Garcia says, "The kitchen is falling apart, the cabinets are rotting.... I think she's considering walking away; she's going to be foreclosed on."

The Dadeland condo runaround sounds familiar, says Florida Assistant Condo Ombudsman Bill Raphan; condo conversions generally breed lots of dissatisfied buyers. "[The developers] sweeten the package — they paint the buildings, they put bandages on the problems, buy a few plants," he explains. "But what they don't do is fix the infrastructure of these buildings — the plumbing, the electricity — they just pretty it up." The nasty surprises, he says, often come in the form of skyrocketing maintenance fees. "These people, a lot of them don't realize what they're buying into."

Maybe they're beginning to: On a recent Thursday afternoon, a resident — who asks to remain anonymous — is shooting pool by himself in the condo clubhouse. "It's a nice place," he murmurs at first. But then he looks around and lowers his voice. "There are problems," he says. "Things don't work. My dishwasher, the laundry machines, little things don't work.... If you ask, they say they'll fix it, but they don't do anything."

Later that day, two new buyers in their early thirties wait for the only working elevator in Building C. It's unclear how long the other one has been out of commission. "I've been here a month," says one, "and it's been broken the whole time."

"They're going to fix it," says the other. "They have to."


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