Renting Under the Influence
It should come as no surprise that Miami-Dade Commissioner Miriam Alonso has had a few problems lately with the upkeep of one of her many rental properties. Tenants have complained for years about poor conditions at several apartment buildings owned by Alonso and her husband Leonel.
This time the Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) penalized the Alonsos for failing to make numerous repairs to a duplex at 3177 SW Nineteenth St. In June the agency cut off rent subsidies of $875 per month to the couple. Although they contested the decision, a hearing supervisor upheld it.
But there is a surprise to the story. In mid-July MDHA director Rene Rodriguez overturned the supervisor's decision. This unusual move allowed the Alonsos to collect $13,884, though MDHA's most recent inspection in May found that they still hadn't made the mandated improvements.
Could Rodriguez's action have anything to do with Miriam Alonso's considerable political clout? After all, as recently as January 1998, county water department supervisors restored service at the Alonsos' west Miami-Dade home just fifteen minutes after it had been interrupted because of an unpaid $400 bill -- then apologized to the couple and punished the employee who cut off the water.
Under the federal Section 8 program, a low-income tenant pays a portion of his rent and the government makes up the difference. Locally MDHA administers most Section 8 contracts and must make annual inspections. If the landlord doesn't maintain each rental unit in decent condition, MDHA is supposed to withhold rent until the dwelling passes muster. The Alonsos have six other Section 8 contracts with MDHA; another of those apartments failed its annual inspection this past month.
In the case of the SW Nineteenth Street location, Leonel Alonso told MDHA he didn't know that the three-bedroom apartment was in bad shape. The reason: He claimed he didn't receive crucial letters, including one February 1998 missive stating that subsidies would be halted because repairs requested in 1997 had not been completed.
That letter apparently went to a Little Havana home the Alonsos had left in 1997. (Some previous and subsequent correspondence also went to their new address, 13167 NW Seventh St.) Nonetheless payments to the Alonsos continued. Although Leonel Alonso received and cashed the agency's checks, he later produced documentation showing that one check had been lost in the mail.
Why didn't the Alonsos just leave a forwarding address with the postal service? That and other questions will have to wait: Leonel Alonso recently underwent bypass surgery on his heart, according to Miriam Alonso's chief of staff Elba Morales. Neither the commissioner nor her husband were in any condition to answer questions. The tenant, Yolanda Quintana, moved out this past May after three and a half years in the duplex; her attorney declined to discuss the matter.
In August 1998 the apartment failed its annual inspection. The county cited thirteen violations in the 51-year-old tile-roof house. They included a rusting refrigerator and deteriorated sink countertop; deteriorated bathroom tiles and cabinets, and a broken bathtub spout; missing screens; and a defective entrance door and roof overhang.
For nine months the problems remained unrepaired. Leonel Alonso argued that he didn't receive notices throughout 1998 and early 1999. Finally, after the most recent inspection in early May 1999, MDHA mailed yet another letter to the Alonsos stating that their payments would be cut off. They received that one.
Leonel Alonso asked the housing agency to reconsider. MDHA hearing unit supervisor Ellis Dames presided over a presentation by both sides this past June 18. "All ... payments to the owner were stopped because the violations that he was responsible for were not corrected," Dames subsequently wrote in a three-page letter detailing the reasons for his decision. "Finally, since none of the letters with [rent subsidy] checks for the landlord were returned because of a wrong address, I must assume that the inspection letters were also received by the owner and he therefore had knowledge of the violations he was responsible for."
Leonel Alonso wrote to MDHA director Rene Rodriguez protesting Dames's decision. Rodriguez asked Raul Fernandez, director of the agency's Division of Planning, Development and Compliance, to review the relevant files. (Rodriguez declined to comment for this story, referring all questions regarding the matter to Fernandez.)
Fernandez, a twenty-year county employee whose annual salary is $71,000, concluded the Alonsos had been treated unjustly. In a three-page memorandum to Rodriguez on July 16, Fernandez recommended that payments be reinstated because of the "confusion and contradictions in the manner that this case was managed." A $13,884 check was issued to Leonel Alonso one week later.
Fernandez's memo cites a jumble of letters and inspection notices found in two files. He concludes there isn't enough documentation to prove that the Alonsos knew there were problems with the apartment on SW Nineteenth Street. Unlike Dames he gave the Alonsos the benefit of the doubt.
Fernandez defends his decision by arguing that the owners might not have known about their property's deteriorating condition even if they had seen it. "I cannot talk for the landlord," Fernandez allows, "but some violations are so little a visitor wouldn't notice; maybe a window is not opening or closing properly." In any case, he adds, because the agency did not cut off payments to the Alonsos when they were first warned, "we kept doing inspections, and it became too confusing with all this correspondence being sent out, and they said they didn't receive it."
Did politics influence Fernandez? He asserts he "doesn't even know" Miriam Alonso. His boss Rodriguez, though, is a friend of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and other top county politicians. Rodriguez has been accused in the past of granting political favors. And Alonso has occasionally been accused of demanding such favors.
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