When Kenny Merker leads a tour of historic homes in his Buena Vista neighborhood, the narration inevitably turns to violations of Miami's zoning code. "This one has two illegal units," he says, pointing to a weathered-looking bungalow carved from coral. "This one over here also has two illegal units." A young girl in a pink dress and pigtails waves hello to Merker, whose patrols are a familiar neighborhood ritual.
Merker stops at what he calls the "Compound," a yard that includes three houses corralled behind a chain-link fence. All three are zoned for single families, yet Merker notes that each has been subdivided into five illegal units. Then he gestures to a fourth home, just to the east, which has been improperly split into twelve apartments.
Merker, an activist on the Buena Vista East Homeowners Association (and a failed fringe mayoral candidate last November), believes the future of his neighborhood depends on code enforcement. City officials have long espoused this position, though in the past they have done little to crack down on even the most flagrant violations. Take Merker's "compound," 137 NE 47th St., for instance. He lodged a complaint with the city against the property owner in 1996. Yet beyond recording the violations in a register at the NET station, city officials never followed up.
Until now. Last week the "compound's" violations finally came before the city's zoning board. The owner of the three fenced-in houses was given 30 days to evict tenants living in the illegal units. The owner of the adjacent fourth home was ordered to immediately restore the twelve-unit home to a single-family dwelling. (Property owners can appeal to the city commission.)
"The city has known that these properties were illegal for more than two years, and yet they never did anything about it," Merker grumbles. "The only reason this is finally being addressed is because Fred Fernandez took over, and he has actually pressured the city to do something."
Fernandez runs the city's Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team office, one of twelve satellite city halls that are responsible -- among other things -- for enforcing the zoning code in the neighborhoods they serve. Two months ago Fernandez was also asked to temporarily assume control of the Little Haiti NET office, which had been without an administrator since Fedy Vieux-Brierre resigned in May.
The Little Haiti NET office oversees most of the northeast Miami neighborhood where many Haitians have settled. It is one of the poorest areas in the city. The office also serves Buena Vista and the ten-block Design District. Every day Fernandez shuttles between his Upper Eastside office on Biscayne Boulevard and the Little Haiti NET office on NE 62nd Street.
Soon after accepting the Little Haiti assignment, Fernandez examined the backlog of pending zoning complaints. In a June 18 memo to City Manager Donald Warshaw, Fernandez found at least 1290 cases that had been open more than 120 days. In some cases, the first complaints were lodged in 1991.
"I was shocked, basically," Fernandez says. "That's an awful lot of cases to be outstanding. I mean, more than 1000. Just look at my Upper Eastside office here. We also serve part of Little Haiti. Yet at most I have maybe 200 cases outstanding, if I have that. Normally I have only about 100."
Under normal city procedures, Vieux-Brierre should have followed up on complaints by sending a zoning inspector to the homes. Then he should have urged the zoning board to hear cases promptly.
Vieux-Brierre left the city payroll suddenly. A fifteen-year veteran earning $68,000 a year, he quit only two years before he would have been entitled to full retirement benefits. "I can not look at trash issues every day for the rest of my life," he explains when asked why he quit. "Look at the situation of the city right now. There's a budget crisis. Do you think I would be getting more resources to enforce the code?"
Vieux-Brierre says he is staying in Little Haiti and trying to set up a business. He won't elaborate. He defends his tenure in the NET office. "I gave the city fifteen years of my life," he grumbles. "I worked in the NET office for six years. I paid my dues. Is the neighborhood better than when I started there? You bet your bottom dollar."
Though it is clear the area has improved significantly in the past six years, Vieux-Brierre's critics -- Merker included -- argue the improvement is due mostly to homeowner and business investment. They also note the stockpile of violations, which ranged from the illegally subdivided apartments to more mundane transgressions such as clothes hanging in a front lawn.
"It's not like we didn't want to crack down," Vieux-Brierre responds to his critics. "On the contrary, we led the way. Look at what we achieved with almost zero money. That should help you understand. The backlog was no mystery."
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Vieux-Brierre also observes that the challenges facing the Little Haiti NET are greater than those in the Upper Eastside NET'S area. Officially, about 40,000 people live inside the Little Haiti service district. Unofficially, Vieux-Brierre estimates that as many as 60,000 people live there. By comparison, the Upper Eastside NET serves only 11,000 people with the same number of staff members. "I had to deal with five times as many people," Vieux-Brierre complains. "What suffered was followup."
Merker scoffs at this response: "He always blames the resources. That was his stock excuse. But it doesn't take much in the way of resources to simply file the papers to bring a clear and major code violator before the enforcement board. And he never did that. He never did."
Fernandez took the assignment in Little Haiti believing it would be for no more than one or two weeks. As Fernandez enters his third month on the job, City Manager Warshaw says he's weighing several candidates to take over permanently. He's looking for someone fluent in Creole, though he's not limiting the search to Creole speakers.
"I will ensure," Warshaw says succinctly, "that the best person gets the job.