In late August, a contractor for the City of Miami tore down the house of 70-year-old Michael Hamilton in Liberty City. As the Miami Herald first reported, Hamilton was given notice that the house had been deemed unsafe and would be torn down on August 28, but the demolition crew came two days ahead of schedule. Hamilton was given five minutes to pack his entire life into a duffel bag.
Hamilton's neighbors say they had no idea the home was to be torn down, and they never received notice of the planned demolition. They say also say the demolition crew didn't take measures to mitigate the dust that was kicked up by the destruction of the 79-year-old home.
"They pulled up with a bulldozer but didn't pour any water on the house or put up a barrier. A lot of old homes have asbestos, and you have to watch out for that," says James Dixon, Hamilton's next-door neighbor and a longtime family friend.
Now, the city and its contractor could be cited for failing to protect neighbors from dust during the demolition.
City of Miami Building Director Asael "Ace" Marrero says normal demolition procedures call for the site to be secured with a fence so no one can enter and get hurt. Water is to be sprayed on the structure so dust and asbestos don't get into the air and harm neighbors and passers-by.
But Dixon and other neighbors contacted by New Times say no fence was erected until several days after the demolition, and that dust wafted into the surrounding homes.
"I had to close the windows 'cause there was so much dust. My dog, my wife, my daughter, the whole family was coughing," Dixon tells New Times. "I didn't understand why they would do it this way with no warning. No warning, no nothin'."
Another neighbor, who asked not to be named for the sake of privacy, says they and their family members have suffered from nausea and headaches after the demolition, despite having no history of headaches or migraines.
Miami-Dade County's Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) learned of the dust issue shortly after the demolition and issued a notice of violation to Hamilton's cousin Richard Anderson, who owned the house. The notice was pinned to the fence that had been put up around the demolition site.
"BE ADVISED, DUST GENERATED AT SOURCE/LOCATION NOTED ABOVE THAT IMPACTS NEIGHBORING PROPERTIES IS A VIOLATION OF MIAMI-DADE COUNTY CODE," the notice stated.
A DERM spokesperson tells New Times the department was notified about the dust on September 1 and issued the property owner an "educational air notice." If DERM receives another complaint about the dust, an inspector could cite Anderson, the City of Miami, and the contractor for the violation, since all were party to the demolition that caused the dust violation.
New Times made numerous attempts to call the complainant, whose number is listed in the paperwork, but the calls were not returned.
Marrero, the city building director, says the city was unaware of the dust on the property until it was notified by the Herald on August 28, two days after demolition began.
"The issue of the dust first came to me from a Herald reporter who also told me there was no fence, and as soon as we finished talking, I called the contractor and said that was not acceptable. No work could be done until dust control was in place and a fence was put up," Marrero says.
Marrero says that by the time he arrived at the site the next day, the fence was up and the contractors were spraying water on the debris. That is consistent with the accounts from neighbors, who said the precautions were put in place after local media began reporting on the demolition.
New Times left a message with the contractor, Built to Last Construction Services, last week but has been unable to reach the company's manager.
The dust violation is only the latest wrinkle in the saga that left Hamilton without a home amid the coronavirus pandemic and a consequent eviction moratorium from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The city claims the house was unsafe owing to prior fire damage. Dixon and Hamilton both say the damage was minimal and did not harm the actual structure.
In a 2019 letter to Anderson, an inspector claimed the house was inhabited by "squatters," according to the Herald. But Hamilton says he has lived there for decades. Although the house had no power or running water, Hamilton had set up solar panels in his yard to power appliances and rigged a cistern to gather rainwater for personal use.
Marrero has said that if the city had known Hamilton was living there, it would have offered him services and helped him find shelter. Instead, Hamilton slept on his front lawn for two days after contractors and police gave him five minutes' notice before starting the bulldozer.
The city relocated Hamilton to a hotel for a 14-day quarantine. The media coverage, along with negotiations between the city and Hamilton's attorney, David Winker, have led to assurances that the displaced septuagenarian will not be left homeless.
Winker tells New Times he believes the house was improperly demolished based on city codes, and he hopes the city will either find his client an apartment or rebuild the house on the same property where it stood.
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