Hialeah's Westland Mall closed its doors in mid-March due to the pandemic and only opened back up on May 22. Despite the long closure, some tenants say they were charged rent for the two months they were out of work — sometimes more than $1,000 a month for a kiosk.
"I have automatic payments set up, and the mall charged me for April and May. Luckily I put in a stop-payment [notice] with my bank," says Gee Alcaron, owner of the Hair Beauty kiosk.
Now, some business owners at the mall are expressing their anger with the rent charges and an alleged lack of communication from management.
Last week, more than a dozen tenants protested outside of the mall on West 49th Street holding signs that said "Please help us survive," as first reported by America Teve. The business owners are asking management not to charge them for the months they've been out of work.
Alcaron and about 26 other business owners started a group chat in March when the mall first closed so they could communicate with management as a unit and ask what the plans were for closing and reopening. She says that throughout the entire lockdown period, the mall's management has been uncommunicative.
Alcaron says she and the other tenants have only heard from general manager Mauro Olivieri on a few occasions. And when they reached out to the corporate owners, Starwood Retail Partners, they were directed back to local leadership. That "merry-go-round," as Alcaron calls it, has led to a lot of uncertainty and frustration for tenants.
"We don't know what their plan is, and the uncertainty causes stress," says Beatrice Frank, the franchise owner of The Pretzel Twister, who has been at Westland Mall for the past 23 years.
Frank shared with New Times a letter she received from Starwood Retail saying she was in default on her lease for not paying rent for the past two months. The letter demanded that she pay the amount in full or risk the landlord pressing charges.
"I understand they have their expenses... but we have nothing, and they're asking for 100 percent," Frank says.
Olivieri tells New Times in an email that the mall's management is having private conversations with tenants one at a time and will speak individually with those who have reached out.
"With tenants who have recently contacted us, we are beginning the same process to find solutions that work. We understand that these are extremely unusual times; like our tenants, our property has financial obligations it needs to meet," Olivieri wrote.
But the tenants say they want to sit down with their landlords as a group — not just as individuals — and ask for April and May rent to be waived since they were unable to work. They also want to renegotiate their rents for the foreseeable future to pay a percentage of their sales rather than a set monthly amount, since their revenues are at a trickle.
Not all of the business owners are protesting, though. Some are waiting to see what the landlords say before acting.
Cangir Elcin, owner of the Stitch By Stitch embroidering kiosk, says he hasn't heard any concrete plan from management, so he's not going to be banging on any doors until he hears their response.
"We don't know what's going on, but neither do they. This is unprecedented," Elcin says. "We have to be united to handle this situation, not fighting."
Other business owners say the bleak outlook of the coming months calls for action. Yanneira Genden, owner of the YanYa jewelry store and Silver Love Dreams kiosk, says foot traffic is at an all-time low and isn't likely to get better soon.
"The mall is dead — it's been dead since we reopened," she says, attributing the lull to pandemic fears and the loss of big-name anchor stores. "Sears shut down, Forever 21 emptied out, JCPenney closed. We get most of our customers from people walking in the mall who go to those stores."
Alcaron and Genden say members of the management team told the tenants to apply for small business loans, but most of them didn't qualify. For those that did, the loan hardly covered their expenses.
"I didn't even get a month of payroll," Genden says.
Elcin also applied for loans and got only a small fraction of what he asked for. He says those funds barely covered a week of his overhead.
Frank says she knows the mall is struggling with a loss in revenue as well, but tenants have less ability to help themselves than a big company.
"I understand they have their expenses, but I think ethically or morally, there is an obligation to the tenant. They are a bigger fish than us. They can do way more," Frank says. "I feel it would be kind to be able to work with the tenants who are there, old and new."