Jack Giralt hoped he'd have his mother's luck. She'd lived to be 84 without so much as a day's illness. But any chance of that evaporated one afternoon two years ago, when he came to the aid of a young woman in distress. On January 18, 1999, Giralt, then 70 years old, had just stepped out of his tiny Miami Beach apartment to run an errand. At the sound of wrenching sobs across the courtyard, he looked up and saw a girl slumped in a heap on the second-floor landing, "crying like there was no tomorrow." He was about to walk away -- "I've got my own problems," he figured -- but at that instant a man ran into the courtyard, saw the girl on the landing, raced up the steps, and began to beat her savagely.
Even though Giralt yelled up at the stranger, the blows continued. He threatened to call the cops, but the man kept punching. Shaking with rage and no small measure of fear, he hurried back inside his apartment, grabbed his pistol from a cabinet, and, as fast as he could manage, climbed the stairs. The beating had not let up. In desperation he aimed the gun through a railing and fired into the ground. At the sound of the blast, the attacker rose and fled. But while Giralt was imploring the girl to get to safety, her assailant reappeared on the landing, this time brandishing a crowbar. He leaned back and slammed the crowbar against Giralt's hip, knocking the elderly tenant to the concrete below.
Giralt spent a month in the hospital. Doctors set his shattered hip with pins and secured two fractures in his left thigh with metal plates. Nine days after the assault, police arrested 21-year-old Eliot Jacob Pita for the crime. The young man had been picked up while walking down a nearby street, in the company of the very girl Giralt had tried to save. "The same dame!" he says incredulously. "Some piece of cake she must have been."
Two years later Giralt must still use a walker whenever he goes out. It's a humbling form of navigation for a retired tour escort who used to lead groups throughout the United States, South America, and Spain, where he lived for a time as a youngster. At home he has developed a shuffling gait to make his way across the terrazzo floors. But the bad leg gives out if he doesn't step carefully, and he falls often. "He ruined me," he says. "I'm a cripple, that's what I am."
In part because he was able to return to familiar surroundings, Giralt maintains an independent life. Neighbors check in on him. They know when he's left for the store or gone to the doctor. With his walker he can make it down the block to Walgreens. The Korean War vet might have lived out his days in relative peace, albeit grumpily and in frequent pain. Instead he faces an uncertain future. His landlord is dropping out of Section 8, a voucher program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that subsidizes rents for the poor, and has decided not to renew Giralt's lease. This summer, after 23 years at 650 Jefferson Ave., the prickly senior will have to find a new home. Long-time low-income renters like Giralt, it seems, are paying far less than what this superhot market will bear.
On a sunny mid-December morning, Giralt shambles past a cluttered dining table into his sitting area, where two armchairs face a television turned full blast to Court TV. He wears what the fashion-forward might call traditional attire for an endangered species of oldster in Miami Beach: a close-fitting brown polyester shirt, light-blue seersucker shorts, white ankle socks, and brown sandals. Moving slowly toward a low coffee table, he finally retrieves a pack of Dorals and his lighter, then notices the TV is far too loud for conversation. With an apology he inches over to the set and turns it off. He can't stop watching the murder trial of NFL star Rae Carruth, he confesses. Why he is obsessed with the case, he's not sure; perhaps it serves as a reminder that somewhere along the way the world has gone crazy.
"We've become a country of bums," he mutters.
His mother's touches remain throughout the apartment, though Henrietta died in 1990. A blue glass vase, a few milk-glass dishes, and other knickknacks line a shelf above the breakfast bar. Henrietta left New York City for Florida in 1977, a year after Jack did. He was 48 years old then, and newly divorced. His ex-wife had remarried and moved to Paris with their two daughters, and Giralt was fed up with a lot of things, including Northern winters. Ready for a fresh start, he packed his car and drove south, spending some time in Fort Lauderdale before settling in Miami Beach. Mother and son found this complex, a Fifties-era motel box, and stayed on, though they moved to a ground-floor unit after Henrietta hurt her spine in the early Eighties. Jack gave her the bedroom, and he slept in the living room. Over the couch that once served as his bed hangs a portrait of Henrietta commissioned from a visiting Cuban artist. Posed regally in a black gown, she gazes out at the viewer, her expression stern and proud. "I never really liked it," Giralt says of the painting. "That's where she hung it, so I left it."
Although his mother's death was devastating, Giralt found comfort in his daily habits. He took long walks around South Beach and could still sprint after a bus, even as he neared 70, he recalls. He enjoyed grabbing a bite at the Cuban joint up the street, having a quiet dinner with a friend, or going to a movie, though he had to scrimp to do so. Since retiring in 1993, he's relied solely on Social Security. Currently that means just $759 per month.
Then last year his world began to go haywire. Heavy rains flooded the apartment in October; the water heater broke; a stray cat hid in his closet and left him with kittens that cavort about the place and require a litter box he can barely manage; in January he wrenched his hip when he caught his walker on the sidewalk.
But the beleaguered old-timer blames his most grievous problems on Flamingo Management Corporation, which oversees the 40-unit complex. Giralt gripes that it was he who had to pay someone to mop up after those storms last fall. He also paid to have the ceiling fan rewired and the plaster patched above the kitchen sink. If he hadn't hired the handyman himself, his unit would have failed quality inspections for the Section 8 program, which he joined five years ago, and he can't afford to lose his rental assistance. The federal government pays $354 toward his $525 rent.
Flamingo, he says, couldn't ignore the gaping hole in the ceiling that materialized one morning, a few weeks after the October rains. Giralt remembers how annoyed he'd been at the incessant banging from the apartment overhead; a repairman was trying to solve a plumbing problem. As the old man washed his breakfast dishes, the workman knocked a hole through the floor upstairs. "His legs were dangling through the ceiling right above me!" he recalls. The debris knocked down a shelf holding a toaster, a blender, and an iron, and tore up Giralt's arm and thumb. "It was a big disaster for me," he says. "I can't write from where I got whacked." His appliances were ruined. And still it took a week for someone to come out and fill in the hole.
Giralt dates the decline in maintenance from 1998, when Euclid, L.C., a Miami Beach real estate company, bought the apartment complex. Euclid, whose manager, Louis Taic, is a New York real estate investor, paid $1.55 million for the structure, which was one of several million-dollar purchases Euclid made in South Beach that year. Since then, Giralt says, interior repairs have been neglected, and the exterior landscaping has gone to hell. "This place looks like Hiroshima after the bombing," he comments, pointing to dried stumps along the front walkway where palm trees once thrived. Where hibiscus and rose bushes used to bloom in profusion, the ground is nothing but sand.
"I realize this is not a mansion," he bellows. "It's not the Taj Mahal. But come on!"
Giralt has found an easy target for his wrath: Gregory Durkan, a Flamingo Management Corporation agent. (Taic is listed with the Florida Division of Corporations as Flamingo's director.) Giralt has a growing collection of epithets, and he uses them freely whenever Durkan's name comes up. "The creep," he calls him, or "that lurid, cheap, inept, greedy, avaricious little bastard." Gregory Durkan, he says, is a name he'd like to forget.
Last July Flamingo Management sent Giralt a notice, advising him that he hadn't paid the April rent. When telephone calls didn't resolve the problem, Giralt took a taxi straight to the Flamingo office on Tenth and Collins with a receipt for $171, his portion of the monthly rent, which he always pays by money order. Two months later, he adds, he received a second notice in the mail: It wasn't the April rent he owed but June's, the letter said. On September 7 he called for another cab, "which I can ill afford," he notes, and returned to Flamingo. There he was told he owed February rent. "What kind of accounting system is that?" he asks. Then, on October 10, he received yet another notice. This time he was informed he owed $718 for back rent and faced eviction in three days. On November 9 Giralt opened a second three-day eviction notice and a warning that he owed $339.
Giralt believes the billing fiasco was a part of a ruse to shake him up and get him to vacate the apartment before the lease expires in July. Instead he became so concerned about the letters he began paying the rent two weeks before it actually was due. And his receipts do indicate that he paid rent every month. In a phone interview with New Times, however, Durkan claims the dates on the receipts don't match up and that Giralt "keeps sending the same copies over and over." The tenant, he says, is the only one confused here. But Flamingo has decided not to pursue Giralt for the funds. "It's such a small amount of money," Durkan explains, "we decided we'll just eat it."
But Giralt wasn't the only one at 650 Jefferson who received notices of unpaid rent and threats of eviction. At least five other Section 8 residents say they were subjected to the same treatment. Those evictions eventually were dropped after the tenants or their family members and guardians proved the rents had been paid.
Nonetheless by July 1 Giralt will have to move. Now that Euclid is dropping out of the Section 8 rental-assistance program, he and nine of his fellow Section 8 neighbors -- all the Section 8 tenants left in the complex, in fact -- have been told their leases won't be renewed.
Giralt's neighborhood, near Fifth Street and Jefferson Avenue, is one of the last elderly enclaves amid the rapid gentrification of Deco South Beach. The area is closer to busy Alton Road than sought-after apartments near the ocean by Collins and Washington avenues, and it is a good ten-block hike north to chichi Lincoln Road. But the long-undeveloped acreage on the southernmost tip of South Beach is undergoing a luxury makeover as construction of upscale condominiums, such as the 42-story Portofino Towers, draws more developers to South Pointe. Older, inland, less-desirable neighborhoods nearby, with their boxy Fifties and Sixties apartments and unfashionable demographics, also are being snatched up. Redevelopment is knocking hard on the doors of places like 650 Jefferson.
Is Giralt's involuntary displacement part of a new wave that could mean Miami Beach will lose the last of its affordable housing? "I think it is going to pose a dilemma for us," observes Steven Kearns, program compliance officer with the City of Miami Beach Housing Authority. "I think we are running out of [affordable housing]. I talk to landlords still on [Section 8]. They see the massive growth and changes in Miami Beach, and many are ready to jump."
Landlords know they can get more rental income if they drop out of the program. Yet before Miami Beach was "rediscovered" in the early Nineties, many of those same landlords survived by participating in Section 8. The HUD program gave them some financial security in a sketchy rental market, says Gregory Durkan of Flamingo Management. They knew the government, at least, would pay its share of a tenant's rent, through the local housing authority. The contract a landlord signs with the housing authority is negotiated each year, along with the lease. When the contract expires, a landlord may opt out of the arrangement.
The Miami Beach Housing Authority currently has about 1400 landlords with Section 8 apartments and about 2700 Section 8 rental units, Kearns says. That isn't enough to meet today's needs. The housing authority has a list of about 1000 tenants who are waiting for rental vouchers to become available, he adds. The process can take up to five years, because someone must leave the program before a new voucher can be issued. With landlords who have participated in Section 8 for years talking about leaving the program, the authority is concerned.
Flamingo Management became frustrated with the housing authority's troubled Section 8 program, says Durkan. "It is such a mess down there," he explains, citing problems in record retrieval and subsidy payments. He doesn't want to criticize the program publicly, he adds; there has been plenty of that from other quarters. Last June HUD put the housing authority on a one-year probation after discovering severe accounting and management irregularities in the Section 8 program. An audit released by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General in September expanded those criticisms to the Housing Authority as a whole. In response, more than half of the permanent staff, or 48 people, lost their jobs, including most of the workers in Section 8. In January the authority was ordered to investigate whether developer Charles Burkett IV, chairman of the citizens commission that oversees the agency, received Section 8 rental subsidies while serving on the commission, in violation of federal regulations.
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Even without the turmoil at the housing authority, Durkan maintains, Euclid will be better off renting the apartments at 650 Jefferson on the private market. He estimates Giralt's one-bedroom can rent for $700 to $750 per month, without any major renovations. That's a significant increase from the $525 his elderly tenant now pays.
The Miami Beach Housing Authority recently obtained HUD approval to increase the maximum rents the authority can approve. And in an effort to keep landlords in the Section 8 program and encourage new ones to participate, Kearns says, the housing authority plans to host public meetings to talk about problems and outline landlord benefits.
For Giralt, those efforts will come too late. This past December he obtained a list of some twenty potential one-bedroom apartments from the housing authority. By the first week of January he already was discouraged. None of the places meets his needs. He must either be on the ground floor or in a building with an elevator. He has to live within walking distance of a store to buy sundries and medication. And he can afford to pay only about $650 per month, including the Section 8 contribution.
He also worries about his nine neighbors, who are in the same boat as he. One of them is 87 years old. "Maybe," Giralt says, "she can have the spot next to me under the bridge."