Longtime Brickell Residents Say Restaurateur Plays Dirty to Kick Them Out

Mayra Baruh, a single mom from Nicaragua, has raised two daughters in the heart of Brickell, in a diminutive building in the shadow of ever-taller towers sprouting up around the financial district. Gretel Hebbert, her oldest daughter, now 27, remembers a childhood of low-rise residences occupied by fellow recent immigrants, parties with friends, and people helping one another with offers of food or clothing.

"It was a neighborhood," Hebbert tells Riptide. "Everybody took care of each other... It's not what it is now."

For years her family's building has been one of the last old residential structures sandwiched among dozens of trendy new restaurants and high-rise towers. But change is coming, and Hebbert and Baruh say the restaurateur leading the charge is playing dirty to force longtime residents out.

"It's been horrible," Baruh told Riptide in Spanish. "Explain to him," she told her daughter, "the mess he's made for us."

The trouble began in February, when Jeffrey Chen, a successful Hong Kong-born chef and businessman responsible for adjacent restaurants Momi Ramen and Sumi Yakitori, bought the property and promptly began construction work.

On February 13, termination notices were handed out to residents, all of whom were on month-to-month leases. Many vacated promptly, accepting a payout from Chen to assist with moving costs; others were more reluctant -- but none more so than Baruh and her two daughters in apartment 7.

They say they've made their whole lives in this building and have little money to uproot -- Baruh works in the kitchen at Rosinella, whose property is also owned by Chen, and Hebbert is a cosmetologist. They say they simply want more time. But when Chen realized they weren't leaving quickly, things got ugly, they say.

First, all of the building's exterior lights were shut off, prompting safety concerns. The construction Chen began was excessively loud, and the dust it produced incited asthma attacks for Baruh and Hebbert. The laundry machine was also cut, they claim, and Chen distributed No Parking signs to tenants who for years had parked in the building lot, and towed the vehicle of one resident who happened to be out of town. Then, on March 5, Baruh received a ten-day eviction notice.

Chen, for his part, says he has treated the residents fairly. Approached by Riptide inside Momi Ramen, the chef denied he turned off exterior lights or ordered cars towed. The laundry machine, he said, was broken when he bought the building.

"We basically told them: 'Look, you don't even have a legal lease at all,' " he says. "We only have two left, and those two we have to go into court to do the eviction, everything... From my heart, yes, I treat them very, very fair."

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